One of the most important contributors to the early success of the Breeders' Cup was its four-hour broadcast window on NBC Sports. Michael Letis, who played a major role in securing that unprecedented telecast beginning in 1984, has died in Connecticut at the age of 69.
Letis and Mike Trager were partners in Sports Marketing & Television International, the Greenwich, Conn., firm that convinced Arthur Watson, the late president of NBC Sports and a horse racing fan himself, to give this new $10-million horse racing championship event a try. SMTI was the television and sponsorship agency of the Breeders' Cup through 2001.
“Mike Letis was one of a kind, an intense and hard-driving, knowledgeable and experienced promoter and marketer of television,” said former Breeders' Cup president James E. Bassett III. “He played the critical role in obtaining the NBC contract to carry the Breeders' Cup on a national network and securing major sponsors as Budweiser and Mobil, assuring its success.”
John Nerud and Nelson Bunker Hunt were close advisers to Breeders' Cup founder John Gaines, and it was Hunt who convinced Gaines of the importance of a network television presence. Hunt's brother, Lamar Hunt, founded the American Football League, which succeeded (and later merged into the NFL) in large part because of its presence on NBC Sports. Entertainment mogul, eventual New York Jets owner and Thoroughbred racehorse owner Sonny Werblin helped put that deal together, and Werblin is the man who brought SMTI and Nelson Bunker Hunt together to seek a deal for the Breeders' Cup on NBC with Arthur Watson. Watson, agreed, and even helped bring announcer Tom Durkin into the mix as the Breeders' Cup racecaller, having heard and liked him during his many nights betting on the horses at the Meadowlands in New Jersey.
Letis brought numerous corporate sponsors to the Breeders' Cup, including Mobil, Budweiser, DeBeers, Chrysler, Michelob, Delta, Sears, Alberto VO5, and Toyota. He loved playing the horses and was a weekend regular at the Turf Terrace every summer at Saratoga, even after SMTI and Breeders' Cup parted.
Longtime Breeders' Cup publicist James Gluckson, who worked for SMTI, said of Letis: “Although he wore fancy suits and buckled shoes, he was a fighter with a horseplayer's mentality. I called him Vince Lombardi in suspenders. He was blunt, and if you messed up, he would let you know. But he had a big heart and he got the most out of the people who worked for him.”
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