If publicity is the goal of watch brand sponsorships, Longines has made a winning bet as the Official Timekeeper of the Kentucky Derby. The number one favorite and original winner, Maximum Security, was disqualified for interference 20 minutes after being declared the winner of the May 4 race at Churchill Downs, leading to headlines all over the world. It was the first time in the 145-year history of the Kentucky Derby that a winning horse has been disqualified. According to online sports magazine the Action Network, bettors at Churchill Downs placed $6.2-million in Win/Place/Show wagers on Maximum Security, which would have yielded $42-million in winnings, not including exotic bets like exactas, trifectas and superfectas, which have higher payouts. Instead, the title went to the second-place finisher, Country House, who ran at morning line odds of 65-l. He is the second biggest longshot to win the Kentucky Derby, after Donerail, who went off at 91-1 in 1913. By early Monday, a counter appeal was launched by Maximum Security co-owner Gary West, who said he was “stunned, shocked, and in total disbelief.” By Tuesday, he had filed a lawsuit against the Derby officials. In 1968, the initial winner of the Kentucky Derby was disqualified over a drug test, but none has ever been disqualified from a win at the event itself.
After the race, which was held on a muddy track after a day of rain, Longines U.S. brand president Pascal Savoy presented Country House owner with a Longines Saint-Imier column wheel chronograph, and the trainer and jockey with Longines Avigation Overseas 41 automatic chronographs. The official watch of the Kentucky Derby was the chronograph model from the Conquest V.H.P. (Very High Precision) collection. The watch is a nod to an original model introduced in 1984, but its history really goes back to 1954, when the the brand’s first quartz watch set a precision record at the Neuchâtel Observatory competitions for accuracy, and was used in the Chronocinégines, a machine it later used to time horse racing. In 1984, a version of this highly accurate quartz caliber appeared in the first Conquest V.H.P., setting another precision record at the time. Last year, Longines added a chronograph version of the movement to its reinvigorated Conquest V.H.P. line. Functions include hours, minutes and central chronograph seconds, with 30-minute and 12-hour subdials, as well as a small seconds subdial and an all-important end-of-battery-life indicator. V.H.P. models are either steel or steel with black PVD coating, in either 42 mm or 44 mm size. Dials are blue, carbon fiber, silver or black. Bracelets are steel, black PVD or rubber in either blue or black. It is water resistant to 50 meters. The latest Longines Conquest VHP watches are billed as accurate to within ± 5 seconds per year, and have a five-year battery life. The watch has the ability to reset its hands after an impact or exposure to a magnetic field, using a GPD (Gear Position Detection) system. The official watch of the Longines Kentucky Oaks race, which is run on the Friday before the Derby, was an elegant dress watch from the Master Collection in stainless steel, with a blue dial and diamond markers, and an automatic ETA movement.
Longines has been associated with the Kentucky Derby since the era that predated official timing sponsorships. In 1848, the company produced a pocket watch chronograph engraved with a jockey and his mount that became a hit among enthusiasts in the stands. By 1912, Longines was timing horse races using the Chronocinégines, which consisted of a 16mm camera coupled with a quartz clock. In addition to timing, it took a series of still images every hundredth of a second, making it ideal for photo-finishes. Today, Longines uses Swiss Timing, the same Swatch Group division that its sister brand, Omega, relies on to time the Olympics. It involves a mass of electronics, several miles of optical cables, transponders and photoelectric cell technology that can measure time in 1,000ths of a second and activate photo-finish cameras that take up to 10,000 images a second. Results are processed and delivered to scoreboards in real time.
“Historically, there has always been a very strong connection between Longines and the Kentucky Derby, which by extension has led to our partnership with NBC,” says Pascal Savoy, the U.S. brand president. “It is the second most watched sporting event in America after the Super Bowl.” Yet beyond the advertising, Savoy says Longines’s goal is to engage with the audience directly at the track, hence the sponsorship of an on-site fashion show called the Longines Prize for Elegance. Everyone sees the name Longines everywhere at the track,” he adds, “but we wanted to make sure they know we are a watch company, and what we offer as a brand, which is an excellent quality/price ratio. We are the leader in the $1,000-$3,000 category, and this event is a target audience for that market. More than 200 entrants vied for the Longines Prize for Elegance this year, all of them with their sights on the big prize: a Longines Dolce Vita in steel and 18k gold with a diamond bezel for the most elegant woman, and a Heritage Chronograph watch for the most elegant man. “The winners will remember this forever,” says Pascal. “We gain friends of the brand for life.” According to Savoy, Longines’s market worldwide is 50% ladies’ and 50% men’s, while in the U.S., the ratio is 60% men’s and 40% ladies. His goal is to bring that up to 50/50. “We see an opportunity for this brand with American women,” he says. “Our price point in this economy is perfect.” Winners of the Longines Prize for Elegance were Rachel Weigler of Indianapolis and Jack Crawford of Louisville.
The fashion show is an extension of the festive atmosphere at the track, where people dress as if they were attending a royal wedding, but with brighter, bigger, and more lavishly decorated fascinators and matching cocktail dresses for ladies and bow ties and flashy, colorful suits for men. The official drink is the mint julep, made from scratch with Kentucky bourbon and locally grown mint, a concoction that renders the event as colorful as the costumes, with more than one feather fascinator askew some time before the Bacchanalian feast comes to an end. Lavish spreads of gourmet food are also part of the Derby experience, particularly in the 100 private suites and VIP lounges at Churchill Downs. These include The Turf Club, where celebrities and sports figures mingle (Patriots QB Tom Brady was among the dignitaries this year), and the exclusive Mansion where Longines’ guests were hosted. More than 22,000 people dine at 106 chef’s tables in the suites throughout the weekend, according to head chef David Danielson of Levy, the company that caters the Derby and other major sporting events, including the U.S. Open. Among the comestibles consumed: 8,000 heads of lettuce, 7,000 pounds of roast turkey (glazed with peaches and bourbon), and 6,500 pounds of New York strip. Various guest chefs served up afternoon specialties, such as the lobster and braised pork cheek tacos served on Derby day. And it’s all washed down with bourbon, the proud spirit of the state of Kentucky. According to chef Danielson, 130,000 mint juleps are consumed during Derby weekend. “From a culinary standpoint, this is the greatest event in the world,” he says. “This is my ninth Derby, and even though I’m working hard, I love it.” Danielson reckons he walks 22 miles a day over the weekend, checking on the food stations. “Hearing 165,000 people singing ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ just gives me chills.”
Friday is ladies’ day at Derby Weekend, when the Longines Kentucky Oaks race happens. It is nicknamed the “Run for the Lillies,” or “Lillies for Fillies.” Longines is the title partner of the race, which is run by three-year old fillies. This year’s winner was Serengeti Empress, ridden by jockey Jose Ortiz, beating out the strong favorite, Bellafina, who finished fifth. And on Saturday, Irad Ortiz, Jr., riding Beau Recall, won the Longines Churchill Distaff Turf Mile prize. Longines is also the Official Timekeeping partner of the Belmont Stakes and the Breeders Cup.
Churchill Downs said total wagers on this year’s Kentucky Derby increased 10% this year to a record $165.5 million. Total bets for the entire weekend of races increased 11% to $250.9 million. “We love the details that go into these events,” says Pascal Savoy. “The women in particular pay attention to every detail of their outfits. That is like watchmaking. It is all about the details.”