- The Washington Times - Friday, May 5, 2006

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — It looks bad and sounds worse.

The Kentucky Derby …

(Now here’s the bad/worse part)

… Presented by Yum! Brands.

For the first time in its 132-year history, the Kentucky Derby has gone fully corporate. Churchill Downs, site of the Derby, signed a five-year contract with Yum! on Jan. 31. Financial terms of the agreement have not been disclosed.

What’s next? The Super Bowl presented by Snapple? The Stanley Cup Finals presented by Yoo-Hoo? The Preakness presented by Chipotle?

Yum! Brands is the Louisville-based parent of KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, A&W; and Long John Silver’s. It has nearly 34,000 restaurants in 100 countries and territories.

Track officials think the deal could generate more global interest in the nation’s most famous horse race.

“It’s a pretty good match,” said Tim Scott, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Churchill Downs. “Yum! is the leader in their industry. We’re a leader in the horse-racing industry. We’re both very much committed to growth.”

Horse-racing fans are buzzing about a 20-horse field that could produce one of the most exciting, unpredictable races in recent years.

Brother Derek is the 3-1 favorite, despite the large field that includes Lawyer Ron, who comes in having won six races in a row, unbeaten Barbaro and three horses trained by three-time Kentucky Derby winner Bob Baffert.

Laurel Park-based Sweetnorthernsaint is fourth at 10-1 odds, though the horse was picked to win by Sports Illustrated and Newsday.

But the Yum! logo, which is all over Churchill Downs this week, is causing a stir. It’s on the starting gate and tote boards, in the grandstand and paddock. Even the pony riders who will escort the Derby horses to the starting gate late this afternoon will wear jackets with the logo.

On television, Yum! will air six 30-second commercials during NBC’s 90-minute broadcast, which starts at 5 p.m. Post time for the race is 6:04 p.m.

Plans to place a Yum! sign on the roof between the historic twin spires were scrapped after the public raised objections.

“It’s just one more sellout,” marketing expert Rob Frankel told the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader. “Why would you let something with the history of the Kentucky Derby be dragged down into fried chicken and a paper cup full of Pepsi?”

The Derby has been “selling out” for years, joining professional sports teams that sell naming rights to their stadiums and, in the case of the Washington Redskins last year, their preseason — “Washington Redskins Training Camp, built by the Home Depot.”

“For several years, we have contemplated a major sponsorship for the Kentucky Derby, but decided we would only pursue an agreement if it was with the right partner,” said Churchill Downs Inc. President and CEO Tom Meeker.

Joining forces with Yum! is just one example of how Derby Week has changed.

Following the 2002 race, the track underwent $26 million in improvements that included 64 luxury boxes and a restoration of the twin spires.

Officials know that this race could be held in a cornfield and still attract attention. Their goal is to maximize revenue during their one golden week of the year. A crowd of nearly 150,000 is expected today, and most of them will wager a lot of money. Last year on Derby Day, $22,768,539 was wagered on-track and $103,985,374 was bet nationwide just on the Derby.

The purse has failed to keep up with the wagering. From 1991 to 1995, the Derby was worth $500,000, before being bumped to $1 million from 1996 to 2004. This will be the second year it will be worth a minimum of $2 million. The winning horse will take home $1,453,200.

Trainers are putting up with the large crowds around their barns because horse racing is a sport that needs any positive exposure.

“It’s turned into a bigger event, and with that comes your corporate sponsors and everything that goes along with that,” said trainer Danny Peitz, who will make his first Derby appearance today with Steppenwolfer. “You have to embrace it because it gives the sport more publicity and anything that does that, I don’t have a problem with.

“It’s still America’s race,” Mr. Peitz adds. “You ask anybody who doesn’t know anything about horse racing, they still know about the Kentucky Derby. And if you tell them you’re a trainer, they’ll usually ask you, ‘Ever run a horse in the Kentucky Derby? Ever won the Kentucky Derby?’ They don’t know another race except for this one.”

While the trainers are forced to embrace the “new” Derby, diehard Kentucky horse-racing fans are having a tough time. Count suburban Louisville resident Gene Roberts in that group. He has 12 box seats — at $168 apiece — for today’s race card, his 15th Derby Day. He’s been coming to Churchill Downs for 42 years and used to work on the backstretch selling supplies to trainers.

But late Wednesday morning, he walked several furlongs from his parking space on Longfield Avenue to the main entrance. In recent years, Mr. Roberts would park in the main lot before post time with no worries.

The track, however, has used 1,500 parking spaces to build a corporate tent area. A majority of the remaining parking spots are valet-only and golf carts are employed to transport those customers to the entrance. Track employees and the press now have to park at Papa John’s Stadium — where the University of Louisville plays football — and take shuttle vans to the track.

“They’re not paying attention to the people that have come here year after year and made the track what it is,” Mr. Roberts said. “You have to really want to be here and really love racing to come here on Saturday.”

Mr. Roberts’ wife has had enough with the Derby Day commotion. She’s staying home today. Mr. Roberts, though, will keep on coming — he missed only three days of last year’s 21/2-month spring racing season at Churchill.

“They want to make every dime they can out of this week,” Mr. Roberts said. “A lot of people are going to start giving up their box seats. I don’t know if I’ll keep mine much longer.”

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