Scoring another sports sponsorship coup, Visa U.S.A. has replaced Chrysler Corp. as corporate sponsor of thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown.

Visa won the rights, for five years, to be the "official payment card" of the spring racing series and to attach its name to the Triple Crown Challenge - a $5 million prize to any horse that wins the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes.

The San Francisco-based card association announced the deal Thursday in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., along with Triple Crown Productions and ABC Sports.

The exact size of the multimillion-dollar contract was not disclosed, but Visa has completed a Triple Crown of its own in sports marketing that has it on the hook for tens of millions of dollars.

Visa has been an official sponsor of the Olympics since 1986. And last April it bought a five-year sponsorship package from the National Football League that will provide visibility throughout the fall season and up to the Super Bowl each January.

"If you take the Triple Crown and the NFL, they are two of the most important sporting events in the United States," said Carl Pascarella, president of Visa U.S.A. "We think it's something the banks can really leverage in promotional activity and image marketing."

Visa will be able to market itself as the "Official Payment Card of the Triple Crown Challenge," and Visa cards will be the only cards accepted to purchase tickets at these sites.

A horse winning the "Visa Triple Crown Challenge" will earn $2 million in purse money plus $3 million from an insurance policy taken out by Visa, ABC, and the Triple Crown marketing agent.

Only 11 horses have taken all three races. The last was Affirmed in 1978.

The sponsorship deal entitles Visa to conduct national and regional consumer advertising and promotions using the Visa Triple Crown Challenge and ABC Sports logos.

Visa also will receive "advertising exclusivity" in all ABC/Triple Crown telecasts and promotional rights in the payment card category.

"They have targeted the top rung of the sporting world," said Tom Meeker, president of Churchill Downs and Triple Crown Productions. "Obviously, the Triple Crown represents that in our area."

This summer, after Chrysler dropped the sponsorship it had held since 1988, the Triple Crown organizations began looking for a company that would take a more active role in promoting it, noted Steve Haskin, a Daily Racing Form reporter.

"Visa is exposed to a lot more people than Chrysler," he said, adding that Triple Crown officials weren't happy with the way Chrysler promoted its sponsorship. The auto company utilized the events more as hospitality venues and a means to entertain clients than to promote racing.

"We had a longtime relationship with Chrysler," Mr. Meeker said. "They were a great sponsor, but their relationship with us was limited to a hospitality commitment."

Conversely, he said, Visa will use its marketing muscle to promote horse racing along with cards.

Mr. Pascarella's "interest in our events has been present for a number of years," Mr. Meeker said. When Chrysler dropped out, he said, Mr. Pascarella put Visa in the running immediately.

"We've been so happy, since Visa has stepped up, to have a sponsor who is embracing one of the marquee events we televise," said Lydia Stephans, vice president of programming for ABC Sports. "We work hand-in-hand to promote the Triple Crown and give Visa as much exposure as possible."

Visa will be tying into one of the most widely watched sporting events - the Kentucky Derby - which is known as "the best two minutes in sports," Ms. Stephans said.

The Derby is one of the highest-rated programs in ABC's Wide World of Sports series. "The Triple Crown is comparable to the Super Bowl," Ms. Stephans said. She called it "the creme de la creme" of racing.

The deal is bigger for racing than it is for Visa, said Mr. Haskin of the racing newspaper. "Obviously, the Triple Crown is not going to make or break (Visa) either way."

Mr. Pascarella said the Triple Crown fills a marketing slot for Visa from April through mid-June, after which the NFL promotions kick in.

Visa has already begun marketing tie-ins with the 1996 summer Olympics in Atlanta, which will be followed by the next winter games in 1998.

"It gives us a lot of promotional and event marketing programs because everybody would like to go to the Derby, or the Belmont, or the Preakness," Mr. Pascarella said. "We could run sweepstakes to those things to build volume, card usage, and customer retention."

Now that it has a marketing presence in three top sporting events, Visa can be highly selective about where it goes next, Mr. Pascarella said.

"We'll continue to look," he said. Any arrangement "has to fit in before we look at it. It has to fit the demographic mix, the image. We're concerned about building volume, retention, and banks' profitability."

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