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Sponsors jump on steeplechase circuit


When the red starting flag is dropped tomorrow at the Maryland Hunt Cup and the horses charge across the green turf and over the splintered fences, they will follow a path and tradition almost unchanged for 100 years.

But elsewhere on the steeplechase circuit are unmistakable signs of modernization: the raffle for a BMW, conspicuously parked at the paddock at the Far Hills meet in New Jersey, or the Carolina GMC Truck Dealers hospitality tent at the Block House Races in North Carolina.

The prominence of sponsors, along with crowds that now top 30,000 at key events, reflects almost a reinvention of one of America's most timeless pastimes, which this year enters its second century as an organized sport.

Faced in the 1970s with a collapse of interest from the nation's pari-mutuel racetracks -- then the hosts of the richest steeplechase events -- organizers struggled to keep the sport alive with less of the wagering that sustains the thoroughbred industry.

They found their future in their past. Organizers saw the potential value to corporate America of their bucolic, suburban race meets. These off-track races trace their pedigrees to fox-hunting clubs testing mounts over rugged country courses, terminating at landmarks such as church steeples.

Latter-day steeplechase organizers have bolstered these "hunt club" meets, some of which have been run for more than 100 years in settings perfect for bringing together upscale crowds and the sponsors who love them.

"We've undergone a complete change," said Charles T. Colgan, executive vice president of the National Steeplechase Association. The association was founded in 1895, and moved from New York to Elkton in 1989.

Although steeplechasing isn't likely to supplant "flat track" thoroughbred racing, which distributes $700 million in purses to steeplechasing's $4 million, it has carved out a niche in the fiercely competitive world of sports marketing.

Malcolm Commer, agricultural economist/equine specialist at the University of Maryland's agricultural marketing center at Queenstown, credits steeplechasing's leaders with recognizing the value of attracting families, not just gamblers, and predicts the shift in emphasis will be good for the sport in the long run.

"It took about 20 or 25 years to get the product organized so sponsors and the public could appreciate what it was all about," Mr. Commer said.

Sponsors have been found in companies catering to high-income customers, such as NationsBank, Rolex, BMW, Michelob and American Airlines.

"It's really such a wonderful aesthetic experience. It's a beautiful setting to position your product in," said Rich Brooks, sponsorship communications manager for BMW of America.

No wonder: In a recent survey of the 1,200 members of the National Steeplechase Association, 58 percent reported household income in excess of $100,000, and 35 percent reported more than $200,000. Forty-five percent have more than three cars and a third have a second home.

At the April 15 My Lady's Manor races near Monkton, the announcer left little doubt about the role of sponsors Alex. Brown & Sons and Mercantile-Safe Deposit & Trust Co., two old-line firms catering to the region's gentry.

Simple white tents, with closed-circuit televisions and tables of food and wine, lined the final stretch. Signs identified tent sponsors: Gaylord Brooks Realty, a specialist in pricey county property, Alex. Brown, the Elkridge Harford Hunt Club and Halcyon Farm.

The crowd of a few thousand was decidedly tweedy, and diesel Mercedes and other luxury cars were wedged between dirty pickups on the grass fields. Families spread out blankets or set up elaborate tailgate spreads under a crisp April sky.

"You do see some business-oriented people but we really come to see our high school friends from the local prep schools," said one tailgater, Tom Maddux, 35, of Towson via St. Paul's School.

He said he has been coming since high school, and has noticed the crowd has matured from beer-and-Frisbee throngs to the wine-and-cheese set. "It's indicative of our generation. Now we are back here with our children," Mr. Maddux said.

It's also part of a concerted effort by organizers of Maryland's major races to restrict entry and control rowdyism. Admission is free, but parking passes start at $25 and are sold in suburban outlets.

Although Maryland sits in the center of steeplechase country, its best-known hunt-club races stand apart for their traditionalism and lack of commercialism. They are restricted to amateur riders, and the biggest, the Maryland Hunt Cup, accepts no sponsors, depending instead on generous "subscribers" to underwrite the $40,000 cost.

"At the [Virginia] Gold Cup, they have the Bud tent and who knows what other tent and claim 45,000 people. The whole thing is like a country fair. I liked it better when it was not that way, but they manage to put on six races and support horse breeding, so I shouldn't be critical," said Charles Fenwick, the secretary of the Hunt Cup whose family long has been active in the sport.

"I would hope we could keep the Hunt Cup from becoming like that," he said.

Elsewhere, organizers have embraced the changes and brought out big crowds and valuable television coverage. This year's Carolina Cup in Camden, S.C., reported a record 63,500 fans a few weeks ago. The Virginia Gold Cup in Northern Virginia routinely attracts 50,000. The Steeplechase Association estimates annual attendance of 1 million at its meets for the past few years, double what it was when the association started keeping the record in 1980.

Sports marketers say the sport has plenty of potential, but problems as well. It is centered in the mid-Atlantic and fades out south of the Carolinas, west of St. Louis and north of New York, missing many major markets. It is also a relatively obscure sport, can be ruined by a rainstorm and lacks the television coverage that tennis or golf attracts.

But the price reflects it: A sponsorship of a steeplechase event can be had for $10,000 to $50,000. By comparison, sponsoring a Professional Golfers' Association tournament can run anywhere from $300,000 to several million dollars, depending on the role and event. Becoming the official car of a major tennis tournament costs $500,000.

"When you are trying to reach high net-worth people, there are relatively few ways to do it," said Mr. Brooks, with BMW.

The company, one of the most active in steeplechase promotion, tried sponsoring polo once, but found inconsistencies between sanctioning bodies confusing, Mr. Brooks said. Yacht racing has a good following, but is difficult to watch from the shore and expensive to sponsor.

"They seem to be getting more and more TV coverage and they seem to be successful doing what it's doing in its niche. I'm hearing more about them. But it's a regional event, it's not national at this point," said Ed Manetta, a senior vice president for Edelman Sports in Chicago.

Purses paid to winners, a key barometer of racing health, soared during the 1980s, leveled off and may be heading up again. Last year, 249 association-sponsored races gave away $3.7 million in purses to winning horses. That figure is down from a high of $4 million in 1990, but is nearly four times what it was 15 years ago and is on its way back up, Mr. Colgan said.

The trend has been good for charities. Many steeplechase meets, which started out as fund raisers for fox-hunting clubs, have grown so flush with cash that they've adopted nonprofits as beneficiaries. My Lady's Manor has raised about $100,000 for Harford County's Ladew Topiary Gardens over the past 11 years, for example. Other recipients of races around the country include boys clubs, hospitals, operas and symphonies.

The shift from wagering-based races to sponsored meets has insulated steeplechasing from the damage thoroughbred racing suffers from lotteries, casinos and other expanded gaming operations. It also has returned the focus of the sport in the nation's suburban regions, where population is growing fastest, Mr. Colgan said.

That's not to suggest the sport is without troubles. National television exposure has been spotty, with ESPN broadcasting the Gold Cup last year but not this. The loss of the Breeders' Cup cut deeply into purses, TV and prestige. And corporations have grown more selective about sports sponsorship, Mr. Colgan said.

"There has been an inevitable leveling off. We went through a strong upward curve throughout the '80s," he said. "I would say the trend is still upward but not as steep as it was before."

He sees future growth in an expansion of the sport to new regions. "We haven't even tapped Florida," he said.

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