06/11/2001 11:00PM

Will Triple Crown ratings affect Cup negotiations?

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NEW YORK - Riding the strength of the recent surge in television ratings for Thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association has begun discussions with NBC about renewing the network's contract for the television broadcast rights to Breeders' Cup.

NBC has broadcast the Breeders' Cup since its inception in 1984. The current contract expires at the end of this year, and officials at the NTRA, which merged with Breeders' Cup Inc. this year, are eager to sign NBC to another multiyear deal while the memories of a strong Triple Crown are still fresh.

While ratings for Thoroughbred racing are increasing, advertising sales for television - and nearly all other forms of media - are slumping because of the slowdown in the economy.

The net effect is that the NTRA will be looking for a higher rights fee for the Breeders' Cup at a time that NBC will be pleading poverty. Typically, the rights holder in such a negotiation can bargain exclusively until such a time that an agreement appears unlikely to be reached.

"We want to keep the Breeders' Cup, because we're the only ones that have had it," said David Michaels, the producer of NBC's racing telecasts, on Monday. "But a lot of it is going to be finding new advertisers. We have to be able to do it where we're not going to be losing a ton of money."

NTRA commissioner Tim Smith said Tuesday that although the NTRA had already received expressions of interest regarding the rights to the Breeders' Cup, the association was hopeful that the rights would stay with NBC.

"Part of the process, obviously, is that some of our people will gauge interest in the rights elsewhere as part of due diligence, if you will, but right now, we're with NBC and intend to stay with them," Smith said. "They have been a great partner and they have indicated interest in continuing as the rights holder."

Smith acknowledged that the market for advertising was depressed, but he said that NBC had surpassed its sales targets for the Triple Crown programs. He also said racing was enjoying a resurgence in popularity due to a number of factors, including the success of the best-selling novel "Seabiscuit" and the promotional efforts of NBC.

Taking over for ABC after a 13-year run, NBC broadcast the Triple Crown races for the first time this year. Its three broadcasts received ratings that were higher by an average of 51 percent over ABC's ratings last year and the highest since the early 1990's.

The rights negotiations are taking place while the NTRA is attempting to organize racing's summer and fall calendars to create a coherent lead-in to the Breeders' Cup. The NTRA is seeking sponsors for eight divisions of races culminating with the eight Breeders' Cup races.

Already, the NTRA has reached an agreement with CNBC in which races for 2-year-old males leading up to the Breeders' Cup will be shown on the cable network. The NTRA is expected to announce additional television coverage for divisional races at a news conference in New York on June 26.