Horse of a Different Color

I love horse racing. Sure, I like the betting that's associated with it, but I also enjoy the beauty of watching thoroughbreds thunder around the track. The majestic animals maneuvering for supremacy, the crowds turning toward the finish line, and the ceremony of the winner's circle augment the sights, sounds, and smells of the stables.

The sport of kings
Because of my love for the sport, I'm torn over the brash sponsorship by United Parcel Service (NYSE: UPS  ) of Big Brown, who won the Preakness Stakes on Saturday. From the delivery company's perspective, it was a no-brainer, though terms of the deal still haven't been disclosed.

As part of the sponsorship deal, though, Big Brown's jockey wears brown pants with the UPS logo and dons a brown UPS cap after the race is run. UPS has extended its contract to the Belmont Stakes at New York's Belmont Park, where the third leg of horse racing's storied Triple Crown will be run. No horse has won all three races in the 30 years since Affirmed won it.

Despite the death of Eight Belles at Churchill Downs (Nasdaq: CHDN  ) at the Kentucky Derby, which Big Brown won two weeks ago, there isn't much risk inherent in backing a horse that was given the company's nickname. According to corporate sponsorship research firm Joyce Julius Associates, UPS garnered about $1.4 million worth of free advertising from that race alone.

Further, UPS has muted some of the criticism from animal rights proponents by donating $10,000 to Thoroughbred Charities of America, a volunteer organization dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation, and retirement of racing horses. Eight Belles didn't quite get the same eulogy as did Barbaro, but Barbaro was a horse in a different class, perhaps up there with Secretariat, Kelso, Citation, and Man o' War.

A rose by any other name
Yet this is where I'm torn over the sponsorship. You can look at almost any sport these days and find big corporate logos plastered everywhere. Home Depot (NYSE: HD  ) and Lowe's (NYSE: LOW  ) -- and seemingly millions of other companies -- field competing NASCAR entries. Stadiums and arenas have long had corporate names attached to them. Continental Airlines (NYSE: CAL  ) for the longest time owned the rights to the name of New Jersey's Meadowlands arena. Even before Big Brown's UPS dalliance, there was "the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands."

Only a few sports have been able to resist the lure of easy money associated with corporate sponsorship, though individual players have been bought and sold by companies many times over. Now that's a risky venture.

The bigger they are ...
Big-name players come with equally large egos and try to live out their lives on an equally large stage. When they fall from the pedestal they've been placed on, that can cause a backlash against their sponsors. Ask Nike (NYSE: NKE  ) , for example, after football star Michael Vick was convicted in a dogfighting case. Both Home Depot and Bank of America (NYSE: BAC  ) were worried enough about the fallout over Barry Bonds' reputed use of steroids that they refused to sponsor his pursuit of the career home-run record. In contrast, there's little chance Big Brown, Gayego, or Yankee Bravo will be involved in a scandal -- at least not of their own making.

Down the homestretch
The history and tradition of horse racing ought to put it above crass corporate sponsorship, and the sport's rules do prohibit naming horses with specific commercial interests. Big Brown was permitted because UPS abandoned the trademark a few years ago. Not that it's not still reaping the benefits of the common-law rights associated with it.

Yet it's also true that the sport has been ailing lately, and anything that can infuse it with excitement, interest, and of course money to keep it going can't be all that bad. For racing purists, however, it won't ever be the same.

Watching these beautiful animals compete against one another would still be just as exciting, but even if Big Brown's heart is as strong as any NASCAR engine, having these kingly horses end up looking like race cars with logos, stickers, and emblems slapped on every square inch of their sleek bodies would be a travesty.

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