SUNDAY EDITION | Jockey advertising at Kentucky tracks remains rare a decade after ruling
Jockey leaders say Kentucky regulations have restricted sponsorship opportunities in wake of landmark federal court decision in 2004.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – They toil five feet off the ground, crouched on 1,000-pound thoroughbreds that carry them inches away from an unforgiving rail or an equally unforgiving horse.
But danger doesn’t always translate into dollars for jockeys who fail to finish at the top.
Ten years ago this week, a federal judge cleared the way for riders to wear advertising in the Kentucky Derby and seek the same lucrative sponsorship deals available to race car drivers, golfers and other athletes.
State racing regulators broadened the ruling by Judge John G. Heyburn II and allowed ads and logos on jockeys’ breeches at all racetracks in Kentucky. At the time, jockeys welcomed those actions as a step toward greater exposure.
But a decade later, jockey leaders say the momentum has fizzled in Kentucky because of onerous state regulations that place the burden on riders, who must seek multiple approvals for every race in which a sponsor is interested. In addition, jockeys must agree with owners on how to split the proceeds.
“The way it’s set up now, it’s set up to fail,” said Terry Meyocks, national manager of the Jockeys’ Guild union.
Fourteen of the 19 jockeys asked to wear ads in last year’s Derby, while only seven riders did in the 2012 race, according to application records from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission obtained under the state’s open records law.
The records show that jockeys pursued few sponsorships in other races across Kentucky – three in last year’s Kentucky Oaks and only one at a track other than Churchill Downs.
It’s unclear exactly how widespread jockey advertising has been in Kentucky. The racing commission only provided
with applications for the past two years, despite a request for all such records dating to 2004. Dick Brown, spokesman for the Energy and Environment Cabinet, which oversees the commission, said it appears that the state’s previous chief racing steward hasn’t returned documents from previous years.
Alex Solis, one of the riders who sued Kentucky regulators in 2004 to allow jockey advertising, said it has been a boon for racing, bringing in additional exposure and sponsors to the Derby. Solis, who was elected to racing's Hall of Fame on Friday, has ridden in 15 Derbys and said he had sponsors in several of those races.
At the same time, Solis acknowledged that Kentucky’s regulations can cause logistical problems.
Solis and other jockeys – including Hall of Fame rider Jerry Bailey -- testified in affidavits in 2004 that they stood to earn “only $56 if my mount does not finish in the top 3 in the Kentucky Derby.”
(Jockeys typically receive between $30 and $100 for each mount, or horse. A winning rider gets 10 percent of the owner’s share of the purse, with the second- and
third-place jockeys getting 5 percent of the purse amounts for those positions, according to the North American Racing Academy.)
Kentucky’s rules require jockeys to have the signatures of owners, racetrack officials and stewards for every race with a potential sponsorship. The tracks have veto power over any conflicting sponsorships, while stewards look to see that ads aren’t too big and could obstruct officials’ view of possible infractions.
In contrast, Solis notes that in California racing authorities only ask for the stewards’ approval.
“In California, they understand the concept,” Solis said. “They’re very supportive of jockeys.”
The California Horse Racing Board doesn’t formally track such statistics, agency spokesman Mike Marten said. But jockeys race with ads on their attire in “every race, every day” at California tracks, said Mindy Coleman, counsel to the Jockeys’ Guild.
“It’s definitely causing problems for us the way Kentucky has done it,” she said.
Heyburn’s 2004 ruling suspended Kentucky’s ban on advertising in races. State regulators approved rules the following year that added owner and track permission before stewards could sign off on a jockey’s request.
“The state of Kentucky came in to make it as impossible as they could,” said Kelly Wietsma, president of Equisponse, which represents jockeys, owners and trainers. “The (Kentucky Horse Racing) commission needs to take the blinders off and understand how corporate partnerships really work.”
But Brown said the regulations were put in place because “you’d literally have fights in the paddock” before races about ads appearing on jockeys’ pants. He said the rules simply require all parties involved to agree, two days before a race, on the ads’ details.
“The bottom line is we don’t think it’s oppressive, and we have no plans to make adjustments to the regulations,” he said.
Commission member Edward “Ned” Bonnie said he doesn’t believe jockey advertising has proven to be the “bonanza” that some riders predicted.
And he defended the horse owner’s right to have a say in advertising decisions.
“I believed that since the owner paid the rider, he had the legal ability to determine whether his jockey wore any advertising at all,” he said. “The silks were clearly the owners’ pick. I thought the jockey’s whole outfit was at the owner’s pick and discretion.”
“EYES ON OUR BRAND”
Louisville Slugger and Wrangler were among the brands that appeared on jockeys’ pants in the 2004 Derby, along with ads for a movie and a Heaven Hill-owned cocktail.
Part of the allure was the attention from the federal court case just days earlier.
For Louisville Slugger, “it was a great branding opportunity that first year because we knew it would put millions of eyes on our brand,” Rick Redman, spokesman for Hillerich & Bradsby Co., said in a statement. “We haven’t done it since because the novelty was gone after the first year and the media attention went away.”
But other companies see the Derby as a fit.
Fuse Science Inc., a suburban Miami firm that develops sports supplements, advertised in last year’s Oaks and Derby. Jockey Garrett Gomez wore the company’s logo on his pants and gear in both races, according to racing commission records.
Brian Tuffin, Fuse Science’s chief executive officer, declined to specify terms of the Derby week sponsorships but said the televised exposure helped the company.
“For us, as an emerging company and an emerging brand, every time these guys are out there we get playback right away,” Tuffin said.
Stella Artois, which has a sponsorship deal with the Oaks, Derby and Churchill Downs, placed an ad on jockey Julien Leparoux in last year’s Derby. Terms weren’t disclosed.
“The jockey ads were one part of a larger activation before, during and after the Kentucky Derby,” Chris Hanson, the beer’s brand manager, said in a written response to questions.
There are no plans to place ads on jockeys’ gear for this year’s Derby, although Stella Artois has
a number of other sponsorship activities planned Derby week, Hanson said.
The racing commission records show that all of the ads worn by jockeys in 2012 and 2013 were at Churchill Downs – except for a string of races this February at Turfway Park in northern Kentucky.
Paris, Ky.’s Good Win Farm, which breeds, boards and sells thoroughbreds, advertised with jockey Eddie Zuniga for about a week. Farm owner Jay Goodwin said it cost $175 for the ads and led to a couple of calls from potential clients.
“That’s all we wanted to do: Get our brand out there and be seen,” Goodwin said.
So how much is an advertisement on a jockey’s pants worth to a sponsor?
Joyce Julius & Associates, an Ann Arbor, Mich., company that analyzes corporate sponsorships, last evaluated jockey advertising in 2011. It found that the “most visible brand placement” for Ram during that year’s Derby broadcast came when its logo was featured on winning jockey John Velazquez’s pant leg for one minute and 30 seconds, generating an estimated $300,960.
But the racing industry faces a number of challenges in convincing sponsors to buy ads on jockeys’ attire, said Eric Wright, Joyce Julius’ president and executive director of research.
For example, he said, Triple Crown races like the Derby draw a large television audience “but there aren’t many of them.”
“It appears like it would have all the makings of a really powerful branding vehicle, but it doesn’t look like that has actually turned out to meet its potential.”
Copyright 2014 WDRB News. All rights reserved.