NEW YORK Get ready for Big Brown-themed Beanie Babies, lapel pins, ball caps and maybe even booze.
As Saturday's Belmont Stakes draws closer, the prized colt is the favorite to capture the first Triple Crown in 30 years. His handlers are already eyeing ways to cash in on the feat, if he wins, and that means merchandising lots of it.
"We're definitely going to mass market in a way that's never been done in our industry," said Kelly Wietsma, president of Equisponse, a horse racing marketing agency that represents Big Brown's owner, IEAH Stables. "I want every kid in America to be able to walk into a Wal-Mart and buy a Big Brown shirt or a Big Brown Beanie Baby."
To make that happen, IEAH has partnered with sports marketing firm 16W Marketing, which handles licensing and sponsorship deals for current and former players from the National Football League.
Big Brown's team is betting that big TV exposure for the Belmont coupled with the rarity of a Triple Crown shot will translate into major licensing and endorsements deals. There's even talk of Big Brown making that most-coveted pilgrimage usually reserved for the country's most celebrated athletes.
"We did get a phone call about him going to Disneyland," Wietsma said, adding that no decision has been made on the trip.
Frank Vuono, president of 16W Marketing, said other offers have been pouring in from companies eager to attach their products to Big Brown. While declining to name them or the financial terms of any deals, he said plans are in the works for apparel, memorabilia, collectibles, blankets and "probably an alcoholic beverage," among other products.
"It runs the gamut in licensing," Vuono said. "We've actually got the possibility to do postage stamps."
Big Brown, who is sponsored by UPS Inc., the shipping giant he was named after, is also being courted as a pitch horse for other brands and to make other appearances, Vuono said.
"I don't think you'll see him on David Letterman ... but you may see him in a milk mustache commercial or on a Wheaties box," he said.
But the splashy marketing blitz carries risks. For starters, Big Brown has to actually win Saturday's race for any licensing deals to go through. The undefeated 3-year-old colt has a cracked left hoof but is still the odds-on favorite to win.
"All the licensing agreements are contingent on Big Brown winning the Triple Crown," Vuono said. "If he doesn't win, there won't be as much interest."
Besides losing, a soft economy could also foil purveyors of Big Brown swag. Soaring costs for gas, food and other necessities have cut into Americans' wallets, seemingly making them less likely to rush out for Big Brown bobbleheads and tote bags.
But history may be on Big Brown's side: Secretariat, the 1973 Triple Crown winner, is still selling T-shirts, books, photographs and DVDs more than 20 years after his death.
And even Triple Crown losers have made out OK. Funny Cide, who won the 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, got his own brand of beer, wine and ice cream after finishing third at the Belmont.
Leonard Lusky, president of Secretariat.com, which started in 2002 to sell licensed merchandise in the horse's name, said sales on the Web site usually jump by 30 to 40 percent during the Triple Crown.
"I would say this year it's probably even a little bit more because of Big Brown," said Lusky. "When there's a Triple Crown on the line, it filters down. We all feel it."
Ben Erps, president of All Pro Championships Inc. in Louisville, the official Big Brown merchandise vendor at Saturday's Belmont, predicted people will hit souvenir stands with open wallets if Big Brown wins Saturday.
"The Big Brown effect will at least double our Belmont business and, if he wins, maybe triple it," said Erps, whose company will be selling T-shirts, caps, posters and bumper stickers. "Then we'll see what kind of legs he has, how well he continues to capture the public's imagination."
Some say Big Brown has already fallen short on that front. Unlike past champions Funny Cide, Barbaro and Smary Jones, Big Brown's face hasn't been plastered on the cover of national magazines and doesn't appear to have won over droves of casual fans.
Michael Iavarone, Big Brown's co-owner, and trainer Rick Dutrow Jr. insist Big Brown will race beyond Saturday if all goes well, though they've already signed a stud agreement with Three Chimneys Farm as part of a $50 million deal potentially removing him from the spotlight.
Lusky, the steward of Secretariat's image, said retiring Big Brown too quickly could weaken his allure among fans.
"If he's hustled off to stud and the public can't get an affection for him, he will not endure as strongly or as long," said Lusky. "You've got to promote your horse and keep the legacy alive."
Iavarone has rejected the idea that revelations that he was fined and suspended for securities violations in his 20s should detract from Big Brown's achievements.
"Everybody makes bad decisions," Iavarone said. "I think people see what we're about."