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UPS' gamble on Big Brown pays off

Capitalizing on the buzz around thoroughbred racing’s biggest event, UPS has inked a sponsorship deal with Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown. And the bet has already paid off.
Image: Kent Desormeaux, Big Brown
Kent Desormeaux rides Big Brown to a victory during the 134th Kentucky Derby.Ed Reinke / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A horse by any other name simply wouldn’t have worked for UPS.

Capitalizing on the buzz around thoroughbred racing’s biggest event, UPS has inked a sponsorship deal with Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown, who was named in honor of the shipping giant known for its distinctive brown trucks and uniforms.

The marketing coup has already won big media exposure and brand recognition for the original Big Brown — a rare opportunity the company candidly concedes galloped straight into its lap.

“Prior to all of this happening, we had no intention of placing sponsorship with a thoroughbred horse group,” said UPS spokesman Norman Black. “But when we found out the horse was actually named after UPS, we got together and decided to jump on it, realizing the great marketing opportunity.”

“We were very opportunistic, make no bones about it,” added Black, who called sponsoring the conveniently named colt “a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

Thoroughbred teams have received corporate sponsorship since 2003, but Big Brown is the first derby winner with a tailor-made corporate nickname.

“It’s a marketing person’s dream,” said Kelly Wietsma, president of Equisponse, a horse racing marketing agency that negotiated the deal on behalf of Big Brown’s majority owner, IEAH Stables, and jockey Kent Desormeaux. “I mean, it was such a no-brainer.”

The partnership has already paid off for UPS, also known as United Parcel Service. UPS logos on Desormeaux’s pants garnered 56 seconds of on-screen time during the May 3 derby, said Eric Wright of Joyce Julius Associates, a corporate sponsorship research firm. UPS’s brand was also mentioned on television and in hundreds of news articles, netting an estimated $1.4 million worth of total media exposure, Wright said.

The sponsorship deal, struck shortly after the Derby, made UPS the exclusive sponsor of the Big Brown team for Saturday’s Preakness and the June 7 Belmont Stakes — the second and third leg in the Triple Crown, which no horse has won in 30 years.

It adds a dash of Madison Avenue-style glitz to the tradition-steeped pageantry of thoroughbred racing. Desormeaux will don a UPS cap after the races.

Paul Pompa Jr., owner of Truck-Rite Corp. in Brooklyn, New York, christened the colt Big Brown after renewing a freight contract with UPS last year, but said he didn’t expect it would turn into a splashy sponsorship deal.

“I never though of that at all. I simply named the horse after a very big client of my trucking business,” said Pompa, who sold a 75 percent stake in the horse to IEAH Stable for about $3 million after his first race.

Neither UPS nor Big Brown’s team are discussing the terms of the marketing deal, which comes at a key moment as horse racing struggles to attract fans and corporate sponsors.

“It’s the perfect storm in that Big Brown has the right name and cast around him to not only promote the sponsor but the sport in general,” said Keith Chamblin, senior vice president of communications for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.

But there are potential pitfalls for sponsors. Big Brown’s runaway victory in the Kentucky Derby was largely overshadowed by the tragedy of runner-up Eight Belles, who broke both front ankles after galloping past the finish line. The filly had to be euthanized on the track as more than 157,000 attending fans and millions of TV viewers watched.

“I think what happened to Eight Belles took a lot away from Big Brown,” said Wietsma. Still, she said horse racing sponsors run the same risks as companies partnering with auto racing teams whose cars are involved in accidents.

“Unfortunately it’s much more tragic when you see a living, breathing animal as part of the team getting hurt, but athletes get injured in all sports,” she said.

Eight Belles’ death didn’t discourage UPS from sponsoring Big Brown, Black said.

“It’s something you prepare for but not something that drives you away as a sports sponsor,” he said.

Horse racing has already had a rough history with corporate sponsorship. Rules on sponsorship vary from state to state, with New York and Kentucky having the most restrictions.

And picking a winning horse for a company to attach its brand to isn’t easy. Of 40,000 thoroughbreds born each year, only 20 make it to the Kentucky Derby.

Wietsma said she’s optimistic the UPS-Big Brown deal will “wake up” corporate America about the new marketing platform — but don’t expect to see future Triple Crown contenders named “Just Do It” or “The King of Beers.”

Rules prohibit giving thoroughbred horses names with clear commercial significance, such as trade names, said Bob Curran Jr., vice president of corporate communication for The Jockey Club, the thoroughbred registry in North America.

Big Brown was allowed since UPS abandoned its federal trademark on the use of name in 2005, Curran Jr. said. The company says it still maintains common law rights to the name.

Pompa, the trucking company who named Big Brown, has 20 other race horses, and said he’d considered naming more after companies if the rules allowed.

“Especially if I keep winning,” he said.