The big question when the negotiations with various networks begin later this summer is whether the three racetrack companies that present the races — Churchill Downs Inc., Magna Entertainment's Maryland Jockey Club, owner of Pimlico, and the New York Racing Association — will work together through Triple Crown Productions or continue to go their separate way on TV contracts.
The three tracks ended an 18-year cooperative venture in 2006 when the New York Racing Association worked out its own deal to telecast the Belmont Stakes on ABC. The breakup followed a rift among the tracks over how the rights fees would be distributed. According to published reports, NBC, which broadcast the three Triple Crown races from 2001-05, paid $51.5 million for the rights to the three events, with Churchill Downs receiving 50% and Pimlico and NYRA getting 25% each. In three of those five years, when a Triple Crown was on the line (War Emblem in 2002, Funny Cide in 2003 and Smarty Jones in 2004), the Belmont telecast drew the highest ratings of the three events, and former NYRA chairman Barry Schwartz was among those who felt the revenue split was inequitable.
Coinciding with the breakup of the TV package on NBC was the loss of the Triple Crown's title sponsor, Visa USA, which ended a 10-year deal that included a $5-million bonus to any horse that wins the Triple Crown. That sponsorship was said to be worth $25 million. With Triple Crown coverage divided between two networks, Triple Crown Productions has been unable to secure another title sponsor since Visa's departure.
Prior to Visa, Chrysler Motors had sponsored the Triple Crown Challenge, which in addition to the bonus to a Triple Crown winner also paid a $1-million participation bonus to the horse that accumulated the most points in all three races. Some critics said that bonus scheme might convince an owner or trainer to put an unsound horse that had won the first two legs in the Belmont Stakes just to make it around the track and win $1 million. That, of course, is a ridiculous suggestion when you consider the residual value or future earnings potential of a horse that could be compromised by such a move.
The participation bonus ended in 1993 after points leader Prairie Bayou broke down in the Belmont and the late Paul Mellon collected $1 million when his Kentucky Derby winner Sea Hero finished seventh in the Triple Crown's final leg. It was a sullen presentation ceremony, and Mellon graciously donated the money to the Grayson-Jockey Club Equine Research Foundation.
The Triple Crown may have lost some continuity and promotional value since the participation bonus and points standings were dropped, though it can't be proven statistically that such a bonus would convince more owners to run their horses in all three races. Participation does seem to have fallen in recent years.
This year, Mine That Bird and Flying Private ran in all three races; in 2008, Big Brown was the only one to do so; in 2007, there was Curlin and Hard Spun; 2006, no horses ran in all three; 2005, Afleet Alex and Giacomo; 2004, Smarty Jones; 2003, Funny Cide and Scrimshaw; 2002, War Emblem, Medaglia d'Oro and Proud Citizen; 2001, Point Given, A.P. Valentine, Monarchos and Dollar Bill; 2000, Impeachment; 1999, Charismatic, Stephen Got Even, Menifee and Adonis; 1998, Real Quiet, Victory Gallop, Basic Trainee; 1997, Silver Charm and Free House; 1996, Editor's Note, Skip Away, Louis Quatorze, Prince of Thieves, In Contention and Cavonnier; 1995, Thunder Gulch; 1994, Go for Gin and Tabasco Cat; 1993, Sea Hero, Prairie Bayou and Wild Gale; 1992, Pine Bluff and Casual Lies; 1991, Hansel, Strike the Gold, Mane Minister and Corporate Report; 1990, Unbridled and Land Rush; 1989, Sunday Silence, Easy Goer and Hawkster; 1988, Winning Colors, Risen Star and Brian's Time; 1987, Alysheba, Bet Twice, Cryptoclearance and Gulch; 1986, Ferdinand; 1985, Chief's Crown, Eternal Prince and Tank's Prospect.
Triple Crown Productions and the two bonuses were created in reaction to a decision by the owner of 1985 Kentucky Derby winner Spend a Buck to skip the rest of the Triple Crown and go for a bonus created for a Derby winner that also won a trio of races in New Jersey. For the first time, the three tracks worked cooperatively on marketing, television and nominations. Since the 2006 split by NYRA, Triple Crown Productions' principal role has been reduced to securing nominations for the races and unsuccessfully seeking a title sponsor. Even the nominations aren't fully cooperative; the three tracks have different eligibility conditions as we learned with this year's Preakness Stakes and the short-lived conspiracy to keep Rachel Alexandra out of the field because she was a supplementary nomination.
Let's hope the tracks opt to work together on a TV deal and put the races back on one network. Other sports, including the NFL, the NBA, and Major League Baseball, thrive by having their playoffs on more than one network, but the Triple Crown consists of just three events, not multiple rounds of playoffs that lead to one championship. This year, there was a very good promotional buildup on NBC leading to the Kentucky Derby, and even stronger marketing of the Mine That Bird vs. Rachel Alexandra matchup before the Preakness Stakes. But things seemed to fall flat in the transition from NBC to ABC, perhaps helped in part by the indecision regarding Rachel Alexandra's participation in the Belmont. There seemed to be very little promotion of the Triple Crown's final leg on ABC or on the ESPN sister family of networks until just a few days before the Belmont. ABC's production values also seemed low in comparison to NBC.
Ratings were extremely solid for the Derby and Preakness on NBC, and even without a Triple Crown bid on the line and seemingly little promotion by ABC, the Belmont Stakes performed well in the ratings, too. This isn't a sign that overall popularity in racing is on the rise but does suggest that the sport's marquee events still capture the interest of a large segment of the public.
If the tracks work together, there are great possibilities, not only on NBC and ABC/ESPN but on Fox and CBS. The Triple Crown remains a highly desirable television property, especially if it is held together as a unit where 1+1+1 equals more than three.
Copyright © 2009, The Paulick Report
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