Epsom's sponsors go off-message

It is a sign of the times, and a deeply worrying one for the horseracing industry, that Epsom, having failed to find a backer for this year's Derby meeting, has been forced for the first time to divide up the races at the meeting to make them more appealing, and affordable, for sponsorship.

There have been only two sponsors of the premier Classic, Ever Ready and Vodafone, with the latter's association with the race being extended to a 14th year last summer in order to fill the breach for one final time after first Emirates Airlines and then four other multinational companies which the course had been courting all dropped out. And that was before the global financial crisis really began to bite.

Nick Blofeld, the managing director of Epsom, said yesterday: "It has obviously been, and continues to be, a difficult time to find a title sponsor for the two days of the 2009 Derby Festival. A number of parties have shown great interest in the title sponsorship but have had to withdraw from latter-stage negotiations due to the on-going economic uncertainty."

Epsom are also nearing completion of a £38m redevelopment and their new grandstand will be opened at the spring meeting on on 22 April.

A brighter sign of the times for racecourses is that Ascot will be turned pink tomorrow as Betfair celebrate the start of their new relationship with the course with a variety of attractions in the appropriate hue for St Valentine's Day. The connection, and one not lost on the marketing department of the betting exchange, has given the day the theme "the perfect match".

The main message though, one rather more important for the health of racing than any to be found in tomorrow's personal columns, is that the one company that is really thriving even in these straitened times is prepared to put plenty of money back into the sport. The firm announced a seven-figure, five-year deal with the racecourse in December – the centrepiece of which is their sponsorship of the now-£1m King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes.

The new link has, however, turned one body, the racecourse bookmakers, red with rage as Betfair's deal includes the introduction of "betting suites" at the track in which punters will be able to log in and bet on their site. With the betting rings of racecourses already showing a disastrous fall-off in business, unsurprisingly, the layers feel rather threatened by this development.

The sponsors have hardly been rewarded with a decent turnout for tomorrow's 2m 5f Grade One Betfair Ascot Chase. Only five horses have been declared, and one of those, The Sawyer, ran unsuccessfully at Chepstow yesterday. There is likely to be an outstanding horse gracing the winner's enclosure, however, as the field is headed by Voy Por Ustedes, running at what is probably his optimum trip.

Paul Nicholls, who took the race last year with Kauto Star, looks to Gwanako for victory, while David Pipe, fresh from his triumph with Madison Du Berlais over Nicholls-trained Denman last weekend, saddles Tamarinbleu.

Nigel Twiston-Davies's Knowhere is likely to complete the line-up and the trainer will have been relieved by his return to the winner's podium thanks to Little Josh at Chepstow yesterday.

Betting on the sponsor's site last night showed 11-10 Voy Por Ustedes, 7-2 Tamarinbleu and Gwanako, 8-1 Knowhere, 20-1 The Sawyer.

Desert Party was a smooth winner of the UAE 2,000 Guineas at Nad Al Sheba last night to complete a treble for Frankie Dettori. The winner's stablemate Vineyard Haven, one of the Kentucky Derby favourites, ran too freely in the early stages and was a spent force before the home straight.

The conditional jockey Paul Callaghan has been suspended for 45 days in the wake of his ride on Hickory Lane at Musselburgh last month when the horse was pulled up.

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