Liar, liar, pants on fire

Jun 24, 2003 9:25 AM

It isn’t exactly the old kids’ cry, but it isn’t far from it. Pants ”” jockeys’ pants ”” are a burning issue in American horseracing this week.

Visa, the credit card company, is screaming after the Belmont Stakes, last leg of horseracing’s Triple Crown. Three of the top jockeys in American racing rode with big ads on the thighs of their immaculate white riding pants. Visa was upset because the ads weren’t for Visa, principal sponsor of the Triple Crown.

Jerry Bailey and Gary Stevens, two of the very best in the sport, had big patches on their pants advertising Wrangler jeans.

Probably even worse from Visa’s point of view was Jose Santos, since he was riding the hugely popular Funny Cide, the star of the show, and Jose’s pants were emblazoned with a big Budweiser beer logo.

Little sympathy could be generated for the credit card company. Two months earlier, it notified banks that it would not allow deposits using Visa credit cards for betting on horseracing.

This hypocrisy ”” sponsoring horseracing but preventing horseplayers from betting on it with Visa cards ”” deserves a smack on the butt, which is exactly what Visa got with the jocks’ pants in the Belmont.

Visa called it "ambush marketing," but there will be more of it. There will because of R. J. Kors, a former National Football League player who got the idea that jockeys were a natural for wearing ad patches, just as riders do in Europe and drivers do in NASCAR racing, where they and their cars are plastered from head to foot, and hood to hind end, with blaring commercials.

Kors formed a company called Jockeys Management Group, and signed up 170 jocks as his clients. Bailey, Stevens and Santos are at the top of the food chain.

Bailey not only wore a big blue and yellow Wrangler patch on his pants, but when he and his son Justin showed up in the Belmont winners’ circle after Empire Maker defeated Funny Cide before the biggest racing television audience in 13 years, they were wearing caps emblazoned with the Wranglers name for all 24 million television viewers to see.

How much Visa pays Triple Crown Enterprises for the rights to the Crown isn’t public information, nor is how much Wrangler paid Bailey and Stevens to wear their patches. One report said the jocks received "in the low to mid-five figures." Whatever it was, it was a huge win for Wrangler and for Budweiser as well. The telecast got towering national ratings because of the huge popular appeal of Funny Cide and his owners, six guys who were high school buddies in the little town of Sacketts Harbor in upstate New York and now call themselves and four other partners the Sackatoga Stable, a play on words on Saratoga, where they broke into horse racing. Funny Cide had won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and was trying to become the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years, and because of all that the 6 to 7 p.m. Belmont telecast earned the highest viewership of any one-hour network show on television during the week of June 2-8. The rating was higher than Everyone Loves Raymond or Barbara Walters’ interview with Hilary Clinton.

Jockeys were fined after the Kentucky Derby because the bluebloods of the Bluegrass do not condone advertising on silks or pants, but New York has no such rule. For the last eight years, recognizing the growing trend of sponsorship in racing, New York merely requires jockeys to obtain permission from the owners of the horses they ride and from track stewards. Bailey, Stevens and Santos had both.

Future conflicts lie ahead. The Breeders’ Cup, thoroughbred racing’s big day of championship events, will be raced at Santa Anita in late October, and California, like New York, allows jocks to wear sponsors’ ads on their silks or pants.

R. J. Kors is ready. "We’re looking at jockeys having the same rights as tennis players and golfers," he said. He also answered Visa, saying he could have gone to American Express or Master Card or Discover, but didn’t "because we’re trying to build the bridges."

Right on, R.J.