Racing: Leger finds a sponsor at the fag end

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The Independent Online
RACING HAS been reduced to scrambling amid the dying embers of tobacco sponsorship to secure backing for the St Leger, the oldest Classic. Just a week after the Government signalled that tobacco sponsorship is to be phased out for most sports by 2003, the executive at Doncaster racecourse has turned to the cigarette manufacturer Rothmans to become what must necessarily be another short-term backer for a race that has had four different sponsors and a surfeit of controversy in recent years.

The Leger had been left without a sponsor when Pertemps decided not to renew their support after last year's running. An incident on Leger day in which a horse leased by the company was disqualified from first place by the stewards did nothing to prolong the association.

Pertemps had stepped into the breach when the link with the previous sponsor, TeleConnection, had been severed due to the firm's financial difficulties. Coalite and Holsten have also backed the race but the latter's association ended ignominiously when the race was forced to switch to Ayr because of track subsidence and a pile-up on the course at Doncaster.

Rothmans have been virtually alone among tobacco manufacturers in recent years in forging links with racing. They financed a series of handicap races, the Rothmans Royals North-South Series, which took place for seven years between 1992 and 1998.

However, the heyday of the tobacco industry's involvement in racing was in the 1970s when Benson & Hedges sponsored both the Eclipse Stakes at Sandown and the Group One race at York, which is now the International Stakes, and was won spectacularly in the year of its inception by Roberto from Brigadier Gerard. Over jumps the Embassy Premier Chase Series and Panama Cigar Hurdle Series formed important parts of the National Hunt calendar but neither achieved the longevity of association that racing enjoyed with drinks brands such as Whitbread, Mackeson and Hennessy.

Rothmans are to back four races at the Leger meeting, for an undisclosed amount. The Park Hill Stakes, May Hill Stakes and Mallard Handicap will join the St Leger under the Rothmans Royals banner in a three-year-deal. However, the total value of the quartet will be pounds 450,000, with the Classic taking the lion's share of pounds 350,000.

Doncaster's chief executive and clerk of the course, John Sanderson, was, naturally enough, delighted at having secured a sponsor for the Classic, even though the marriage cannot last. "I would like to congratulate Rothmans on joining that select little band of companies that sponsor the English Classics," Sanderson said at the launch of the association in London yesterday.

Despite the proximity of the deal to the Government announcement of action to ban cigarette advertising and sports sponsorship by cigarette companies, Sanderson refused to enter into any controversy. "While we are prepared to accept any criticism, Doncaster has no wish to enter the debate of tobacco sponsorship," he said.

Doncaster Council own the track, which is managed by International Racecourse Management of which Sanderson is chief executive. He said that he had discussed the new sponsorship with the council but received no opposition. "The council sit easily with the deal and we look forward to our new relationship with the backing of all concerned," he said.

The new deal comes just a week after the Government signalled the beginning of the end for tobacco advertising, with draft proposals to ban it in most forms by the end of the year. Ministers also pledged to phase out most tobacco sponsorship, particularly in sport within the next four years.

Sponsorship by tobacco companies will be phased out by July 2003 - with the significant exception of "global" events highly dependent on tobacco sponsorship, most significantly Formula One motor racing.

Formula One, along with sports such as snooker, will be granted an extra three years to find additional sources of income, only on the proviso that tobacco advertising and sponsorship at the events falls by at least 20 per cent in each of the three years.

HISTORY OF ST LEGER SPONSORS

1984: The brewers Holsten become the first sponsors of the world's oldest Classic.

1989: Holsten withdraws after refusing to lend its name to the substitute race staged at Ayr after track subsidence made Doncaster unsafe.

1990: The Leger is run without a sponsor after the recruitment of a London agent fails to find a backer. The Levy Board helps Doncaster out with a one-off grant.

1991: After a two-year search, the smokeless-fuel producers Coalite are signed up to sponsor the St Leger in a three-year deal. They pull out on completion of the contract.

1994: Telecommunications firm TeleConnection are announced as new sponsors for the St Leger, investing pounds 425,000 in a three- year deal.

1995: Doncaster terminates the TeleConnection deal just a month before the race as the firm is in financial difficulties and its principal shareholder is subject of a bankruptcy petition. A week later Pertemps step in to back the race and sign a deal taking their sponsorship to 1998. This is not renewed.

1999: The cigarette company Rothmans sign a three-year deal to sponsor the Leger, the Park Hill Stakes, May Hill Stakes and Mallard Handicap.

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