World: Stuart Elliott in America

They say two out of three ain't bad but, when the goal is winning the Triple Crown, one of the most coveted prizes in US sports - and sports marketing - it ain't good, either.

The Triple Crown has been bestowed 11 times on the three-year-old horse that has won, in the space of five weeks, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes. The term was imported from Britain in 1930, when Gallant Fox became the second horse to enter the three winners' circles after Sir Barton did it in 1919.

Horse racing does not come high on the list of sports that sports-mad US advertisers like to sponsor. This is partly because of the demographics, the double whammy of older and lower-income (many of the gamblers look as if they were in the chorus of the original production of Guys and Dolls, warbling "I've got the horse right here" from Fugue for Tinhorns). And it's partly because gambling, unless it takes place in glitzy Las Vegas, still suffers from a dodgy image that deters many blue-chip marketers.

Despite that, each spring hope, well, springs eternal for Madison Avenue as the race for the Triple Crown gets under way, especially now that the jockeys are being permitted to wear ads on their racing silks. These are visible not to the crowds at the tracks but to the millions of viewers at home, who get to see all those tight shots and close-ups that turn the jockeys into miniature billboards.

Also fuelling the anticipation: the winner of all three races gets a $5 million bonus under a promotion known as the Triple Crown Challenge, introduced in 1987 with Chrysler as the sponsor. While the prize has remained unchanged since then, $5 million still can buy a lot of oats.

Chrysler stuck around until 1993 and, after a hiatus, the Challenge returned in 1996 with Visa as the underwriter.

Alas, in all the years the promotion has been offered, it has been close, but no cigar, because there has been no winner.

In fact, no horse has worn the crown since 1978, a 26-year drought that now exceeds the previous longest dry spell, between 1948, when Citation achieved the feat, and 1973, when Secretariat pulled it off.

Making the lack of a Triple Crown title even more tantalising is the fact that, in six of the past eight years, a horse won the first two jewels in the crown, as sportswriters are wont to put it, only to miss finishing first in the Belmont Stakes.

The most recent addition to the roster of also-rans is Smarty Jones, which fell short by a length in the Belmont on 5 June, after winning the Derby on 1 May and the Preakness two weeks later.

Still, it hasn't been a total loss, as one of the Guys and Dolls chorus members might say. The ratings for the coverage of the Preakness Stakes on NBC were the highest in more than two decades - sweet news to Visa and the other advertisers that bought commercial time during the telecast.

And there still may be a modest endorsement career for the jockey who rode Smarty Jones, a stalwart fellow named Stewart Elliott.

(No relation. But had he made it across that third finish line, by now I'd have figured out a way to make him at least a second cousin.)