NEW YORK -- The stretch run of ABC's 26 years of Triple Crown coverage could be off-limits for millions of viewers.
A dispute between the Walt Disney Co. and Time Warner Inc. over transmission rights left seven Disney-owned ABC stations off local cable systems as of Monday.
If the sides don't settle their differences by Saturday, 3.5 million cable viewers in seven markets, including New York City and Los Angeles, won't be able to see the Kentucky Derby unless they rig their TVs to get an ABC station the old-fashioned way -- through an antenna.
"It's something we have no control over," said Karl Schmitt, senior VP of Churchill Downs Inc., which owns the track and the Derby itself. "We're hopeful it all will be resolved before Saturday at 4:30, when the show goes on the air."
The Augusta cable TV market is not affected by the dispute.
ABC's long association with thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown ends after this year's series, when its current contract expires. Last October, NBC outbid ABC and signed a five-year deal, worth a reported $51.5 million, to televise the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
ABC, led by commentator Jim McKay, has televised the Derby since 1975 and covered all three races since 1987.
The Preakness is May 20, the Belmont June 10.
Those affected by the Disney-Time Warner impasse could also miss out on NHL playoff games slated for ABC on coming weekends. The network, in the first season of a five-year, $600 million deal it and ESPN have with the league, is slated to air a second-round game -- from either the Colorado-Detroit or Pittsburgh-Philadelphia series -- Sunday.
The NHL, like Churchill Downs, has been in constant contact with ABC to stay abreast of developments.
"We're obviously watching the situation closely. We understand from ABC it's a very fluid situation. A week is a long time," said Bernadette Mansur, NHL group VP for communications.
The network's upcoming sports schedule also includes the final two rounds of the PGA Tour's Compaq Classic on Saturday and Sunday, the International Figure Skating Challenge on May 13, and Indy 500 time trials May 20-21.
The move comes during a sweeps period, when ratings are used to set local advertising rates. Sweeps began Thursday and end May 24.
"It could have a damaging effect on ABC Sports," said Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports and head of his own consulting firm.