LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Forty Niner, last year's champion 2-year-old colt, and Epitome, the champion filly, head a list of 380 thoroughbreds nominated for the 1988 Triple Crown races--the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
"Not only are these 380 nominees going for the glory of the Triple Crown, but they are also going for the financial rewards of the 'Chrysler Triple Crown Challenge,' " said Gerald McKeon, president of the New York Racing Assn.
The challenge guarantees a $1 million bonus to the horse with the best overall finish in the Triple Crown, and a $5 million bonanza to any horse that can sweep the three Triple Crown races.
The 380 this year compare with 398 nominated on the first deadline a year ago. An additional 24 were nominated for the late closing on March 17 last year, bringing the total for 1987 to 442.
Nominating rules and deadlines are the same as last year with a $600 payment due for early nominees and a $3,000 payment for those nominated on the late deadline of March 17. No supplemental nominations are allowed after that date for any of the Triple Crown races.
Forty Niner, trained by Woody Stephens and owned by Claiborne Farm, won 5 of 6 starts as a 2-year-old and recently finished second to Perfect Spy in the Hutcheson Stakes at Gulfstream Park in his first start at age 3.
Epitome, a homebred product of Jonabell Farm trained by Phil Hauswald, won her championship largely on the strength of an upset victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies at Hollywood Park last November.
Both Forty Niner and Epitome are high-weighted on the Experimental Free Handicap, which ranks this year's 3-year-old crop by performance at age 2.
Forty Niner is preparing for his Triple Crown campaign at Hialeah Park, and Epitome is training at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, Fla.
Thomas Meeker, president of both Churchill Downs and Triple Crown Productions, noted that out of the 373 colts and geldings nominated are 18 of the top 20 horses rated on the experimental.
"However, we also have owners nominating horses who haven't even won a race yet," he said. "They all recognize that the Triple Crown remains the crowing achievement in thoroughbred racing, and they're all waiting for that one special horse to come along who can bring them a victory in one of the classics."
McKeon said he saw first hand last year how the bonus incentives expanded interest in the Triple Crown for both the public and the horsemen.
"We had 5 of the top 6 Derby finishers competing in the Preakness and the Belmont as well," he said. "Our attendance and television viewership were up dramatically for the Belmont with so much interest in Alysheba and the $5 million.
"Even Bet Twice snatching the bonus away wasn't such a bad thing for us as it proved so dramatically how very difficult the Triple Crown is to win."
Among the most higly-rated of the male nominees are Tejano, Success Express, and Notebook, all from the stable of D. Wayne Lukas; Paul Mellon's Crusader Sword, winner of last year's Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga, and Purdue King, one of the top 3-year olds campaigning in California.
Also, Regal Classic, last year's 2-year-old Canadian champion; Cherokee Colony, who broke out of the box early this year to win the Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah in impressive fashion, and Mi Preferido, winner of the recent San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita Park.
Included among the male nominees are Laurel Futurity winner Antiqua; Ruhlmann, winner of th El Camino Real Derby at Bay Meadows; Firery Ensign, victor in last year's Young America Stakes at Hialeah, and Frosty The Snowman and Seeking the Golf, both late-bloomers who have been impressive in allowance victories this winter in Florida.
Epitome is one of 7 fillies nominated to the Triple Crown this year and is not the only one showing promise.
Lukas-trained Winning Colors, owned by Eugene Klein, won her third straight race in the La Centinela Stakes at Santa Anita last month, setting a stakes record in the process. Thirty Eight Go Go, trained by King Leatherbury, was the 2-year-old Maryland-bred champion filly of 1987.