LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WHAS11) -- Churchill Downs said Monday it had nothing to do with the Kentucky Derby Festival's move to drop "Kentucky" from the name of the 2011 Derby Festival.
"The answer is 'no,' said Churchill Downs Vice-President of Communications John Asher, who also disclosed that discussions between the racetrack and the festival are ongoing and aimed at strengthening the relationship between the racing corporation and the non-profit group that celebrates its signature event.
"We do not discuss specifics of any business issues," Asher said when asked whether Churchill Downs desires to coordinate Kentucky Derby sponsorships with the festival, "But, Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby Festival are working toward a future that is mutually beneficial."
In recent years, Churchill Downs has increased efforts to market and leverage the "Kentucky Derby" brand, including selling naming rights to Yum! Brands in 2006.
The festival's recent name change prompted speculation that the racetrack was protecting its "Kentucky Derby" trademark.
"We have never on any occasion this year or any other year asked for one penny or made that suggestion to the Kentucky Derby Festival," Asher said.
Derby Festival President Mike Berry declined WHAS11's interview request. And, a festival spokeswoman would not address the question whether Churchill Downs asked for the name change.
"We have an ongoing working relationship with Churchill Downs," said Aimee Boyd.
For 2011, the "Kentucky Derby" is gone from the festival's website, souvenirs and events. Yet Boyd provided copies of marketing materials from previous years in which the association is referred to only as "Derby Festival."
"We have not dropped Kentucky from our name," Boyd said, "We have used it interchangeably for years."
"While we are protective of the Kentucky Derby as a brand," Asher continued, "there are clearly exceptions in this community," namely the Derby Festival and the non-profit and separate Kentucky Derby Museum.
Dan Barberchek, the president of red7e, the Louisville advertising firm that Churchill Downs used for most of the past ten years, said Monday that it would be "smart" for Churchill to protect its trademark.
"If you're Churchill Downs, you realize that the Kentucky Derby is your primary asset, your primary thing that you can sell to the rest of the world," Barberchek explained, "and the bigger you can make that, the better off you are. If there's a million people in Jefferson County who are thinking there are two Derbies, one's the festival and one's the horse race, then you do have some confusion over what you stand for."
And, Barberchek reasons, that confusion could cost Churchill Downs revenue.
"I do know that if you are trying to sell a sponsorship as a sponsor to the 'Kentucky Derby,' and then there is someone else trying to sell sponsorship to 'Kentucky Derby Festival,' then there might be some competition there," Barberchek explained,
"and the sponsor is right to say, 'Well, which one am I getting the best benefit from?'"
In addition to potential conflicts between competing sponsors for the "Kentucky Derby" versus the "Kentucky Derby Festival," both Churchill Downs and the Derby Festival market similar items, such as posters, mint julep glasses and apparel.
"If it were me, I would probably find a way to better coordinate the sponsorship sales and promotion of the event," Barberchek said, "that way you won't have the competition from a marketing standpoint, and you can gain efficiencies through coordination."
People familiar with the history of both the racetrack and the festival pointed to an acrimonious relationship that existed for decades between the two entities. Any tension today was not evident in Asher's comments.
"We are very happy with the relationship with the Kentucky Derby Festival and are looking for ways to move it forward," Asher said.
Boyd said that the festival might restore "Kentucky" to the name next year. Barberchek wonders why to bother.
"I don't think the Kentucky Derby Festival loses anything by becoming the 'Derby Festival,'" Barberchek said, "There's people saying, 'Geez, that's a shame they're dropping the 'Kentucky'' when they try to make an issue out of that, but frankly everyone calls it the Derby Festival anyway."