Headed by reigning juvenile male champion Good Magic, a total of 360 3-year-olds were made eligible to compete during the early nomination phase in the 2018 Triple Crown races: the $2 million Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1), the $1.5 million Preakness Stakes (G1) and the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes (G1).
The total is down 14% from last year's early phase of Triple Crown nominations, which attracted 419 horses, and is the lowest number of early nominations since 2005 which had 358. The level of decline was somewhat of a surprise to officials, given the level of parity in the 3-year-old division last season, although the contraction of the North American foal crop was cited as a likely contributing circumstance.
According to statistics from The Jockey Club, the registered foal crop for 2015 was estimated at 20,850, a decline of 2.5% percent compared with 2014 figures.
"I think we're just looking to see, as an industry, kind of where we are right now with the foal crop and things of that nature," said John Asher, vice president of racing communications for Churchill Downs. "That's obviously been some factor. But the key is ... while thinking about it a few weeks ago, I would have thought the number would have been a little higher than that, but if you look at the 360, we've got the right 360. We've got all the right horses on there. It's got a tremendous mix of international horses and horses that are well intended from people hoping to be here and compete in the series.
"I think 360 is still a good number. We all as an industry would like to see it higher, but it's a good number, especially looking at the quality."
An additional six Thoroughbreds were made eligible during the late nomination period last year to raise the overall total to 425. The late nomination period, which requires a payment of $6,000 for each nominated 3-year-old, has started and will continue through March 19.
"For sure, I'd love to see the number jump a little higher," Asher said. "Hopefully when we get to the second closing, we'll see some new names pop in there and some new stars emerge between now and then. So there are still some opportunities."
The Chad Brown-trained Good Magic, winner of the Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile, is joined on the list of early Triple Crown nominees by accomplished stars that include Ruis Racing's Bolt d'Oro, whose only blemish in four 2017 races was a third-place finish behind Good Magic; and Solomini, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile runner-up owned by Zayat Stables and trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, who teamed in 2015 to send American Pharoah to the first sweep of the Triple Crown races since 1978. One of Solomini's three losses was a disqualification from first to third in December's Los Alamitos CashCall Futurity (G1).
The 2018 Triple Crown will open May 5 with the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. The Preakness, the Triple Crown's 1 3/16-mile second leg, is set for May 19 at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. The 150th running of the Belmont Stakes, the series' 1 1/2-mile final leg, is scheduled for June 9 at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y.
Early nominations to the 2018 Triple Crown closed Jan. 20. Each nomination was accompanied by payment of a $600 fee to make the individual Thoroughbred eligible to compete in any or all of the Triple Crown contests.
The 2015 Triple Crown sweep by American Pharoah was only the 12th since Sir Barton became the first of 12 3-year-olds to win all three races in a single year in 1919. The roster of Triple Crown-winning greats is completed by Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1935), War Admiral (1937), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946), Citation (1948), Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978).
Following American Pharoah's celebrated 2015 Triple Crown sweep, each of the past six Triple Crown races has had a different winner. Last year Always Dreaming opened the series with a victory in the Kentucky Derby, but the Preakness was won by Cloud Computing, a colt who had not competed in the opening Triple Crown jewel. Last year's series was completed with a victory by Tapwrit in the Belmont Stakes.
Both Always Dreaming and Tapwrit were trained by Todd Pletcher, who became the first conditioner to earn Triple Crown victories with different horses in a calendar year since D. Wayne Lukas achieved the feat in back-to-back seasons in 1995-96.
After winning two Triple Crown events in 2017, Pletcher led all trainers by making 37 horses Triple Crown-eligible during this year's early nomination phase. Pletcher, honored seven times with the Eclipse Award as America's top trainer, has five wins in U.S. classics that include a pair of Kentucky Derby triumphs and three Belmont Stakes victories. Baffert, who has a total of 12 triumphs in Triple Crown races, was next with 32 nominations. Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen nominated 17 horses and was followed by Dale Romans (11) and Mark Casse (10). Aidan O'Brien led international trainers with six nominations, headed by Mendelssohn and U S Navy Flag.
Zayat Stables led all owners with 12 Triple Crown nominees and edged WinStar Farm by one for the top spot in that tightly bunched category. Four owners tied at 10 nominations: China Horse Club International; Charles Fipke; Michael Tabor, Susan Magnier, and Derrick Smith; and West Point Thoroughbreds. Calumet Farm—winner of a record 17 Triple Crown races that includes the historic sweeps by Whirlaway and Citation—tied with St. Elias Stable at nine nominees, one more than Winchell Thoroughbreds.
Fipke bred 11 of the early Triple Crown nominees to lead all breeders, edging Gainesway Thoroughbreds, which bred 10 nominees. They were followed by Godolphin (9), WinStar Farm (9) and Calumet Farm (6).
Tapit , the sire of Belmont Stakes winner Tapwrit and Creator (2016), led all sires with 22 early nominees. Pioneerof the Nile , the sire of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, was next with 12 nominees, and was followed by Candy Ride and Curlin (11), Into Mischief (10) and Medaglia d'Oro and the late Scat Daddy (9).
The 360 nominated Triple Crown candidates include 324 colts, 20 geldings, 12 ridglings, and four fillies. Gary Barber's Ontario-bred Wonder Gadot is the most accomplished of the four nominated fillies. The Casse-trained daughter of Medaglia d'Oro has earned graded stakes wins against members of her gender in the Demoiselle Stakes (G2) and the Mazarine Stakes (G3).
Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (G1T) winner Mendelssohn, a $3 million yearling purchase at Keeneland's 2016 September Sale, is the most expensive sales purchase among the early nominees. A group of seven nominated seven-figure auction purchases also includes Good Magic, who sold for $1 million during the same 2016 sale.
The nominees include 288 horses bred in Kentucky, which is 80% of the overall total. Florida was next with 14 nominees and was followed by Maryland (10), New York (9) and California (5). International nominees include seven bred in Canada, six in Ireland and two apiece from Great Britain and Japan.
Nineteen of the nominees are based outside North America, including 13 from Europe, three from Dubai and a trio of Japanese-based runners: Cattleya Sho winner Ruggero, Mominoki Sho winner Work and Love and unraced Copano Kicking.
"We expect that number (of international) nominees to grow, especially if one of these horses can come in and have success in one of the Triple Crown races," Asher said. "We've had varying levels of that over the years, but not a tremendous number of horses that have come from abroad and run well in these races as Go and Go did in the (1990) Belmont Stakes. But you have to think it's only a matter of time."
The Kentucky Derby field has been limited to 20 starters since 1975 and the horses that enter the starting gate for its 2018 renewal will again be determined by points earned in the Road to the Kentucky Derby eligibility system, which debuted in 2013. If entries to the Derby total more than the maximum field of 20, up to four "also eligible" entrants will be permitted. If one or more entrants scratch from the 20-horse Kentucky Derby field prior to 9 a.m. (EDT) May 4, the also-eligible horse or horses with highest preference in the Road to the Kentucky Derby system assume the empty stalls in the starting gate.
The Preakness is limited to 14 starters and the Belmont Stakes permits a maximum field of 16.
Three-year-olds that were not nominated to the Triple Crown during either the early or late nomination phases have a final opportunity to become eligible for the races through payment of a supplemental nomination fee. Due at the time of entry for either the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, or the Belmont Stakes, the supplemental fee process makes a horse eligible for the remainder of the Triple Crown series. A supplemental nomination at the time of entry to the Kentucky Derby requires payment of $200,000. The fee is $150,000 if paid prior to the Preakness or $50,000 at time of entry to the Belmont Stakes.
Churchill Downs adjusted its entry process in 2014 to permit supplemental nominees to be treated the same as original and late Triple Crown nominees. If one or more supplemental nominees possess sufficient Road to the Kentucky Derby points to qualify for the Kentucky Derby field, they will be allowed to start over original and late nominees with lesser qualifications. Previously Churchill Downs gave preference in all cases to early and late nominees.