Four hundred and one 3-year-olds have been nominated during the early nomination period for the 2009 edition of the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred racing.

The figures are down from the 2008 near-record fi gure of 449 early nominations, but the quality remains at the crème de la crème level with the top three colts from the 2008 Experimental Handicap weights – Midshipman, Vineyard Haven and Square Eddie – leading the way.

Midshipman was the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner and juvenile Eclipse Award champion, while Vineyard Haven posted two Grade I victories before being prepared to head for training in Dubai for Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum’s Godolphin Racing. Square Eddie won Keeneland’s Grade I Breeders Futurity after fi nishing in the money in his four races in England before coming to the barn of Doug O’Neill and fi nishing second in the Juvenile.

Midshipman and Vineyard Haven may provide Sheikh Mohammed with his best opportunity to reach his longheld goal of winning the Kentucky Derby with a horse trained in his native Dubai. Both horses are there now. Vineyard Haven was bought by the sheikh from ownertrainer Robert Frankel following the two Grade I victories, and Midshipman came to Godolphin through Sheikh Mohammed’s purchase of Stonerside Farm and nearly all of its racing and breeding stock. The two colts head a seven- horse contingent from Godolphin. Street Hero, third in the Juvenile and fourth on Experimental Handicap, has been retired to stud.

Edward P. Seigenfeld, executive vice president of Triple Crown Productions, based in Louisville, Ky., had this say about the situation: “Though the numbers are down from previous record-setting years in the early nominating period, we are thrilled to see that the elite of this 3-year-old crop is represented among the nominations. The presence of the eight top-weighted colts still in training from the 2008 Experimental Handicap of 2-year-olds, including Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and 2-year-old Eclipse Award winner Midshipman, shows once again that interest in Thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown continues to be high.

"Add to that the nomination of the reigning 2-year-old filly champion, Stardom Bound, and the Triple Crown starts out with an extremely competitive group.” The Godolphin nominees, an increase from three in 2008, are part of a highly respected 27-horse caravan from across the Atlantic Ocean.

For the first time in six years, multiple Eclipse Award winner Todd Pletcher does not head up the list of top nominator among trainers. That honor goes to 2008 Eclipse trainer Steven Asmussen, who finished 2008 with a record 622 victories and conditioned Curlin to a second straight Horse of the Year. His 25 nominees top the list. Pletcher nominated 20, with perennial top trainers Nick Zito and Bob Baffert following with 19 and 12 nominations, respectively. Filling out the top five is Richard Violette Jr. with 11.

In the owner category, Zayat Stables far outranked the rest with 22 nominations. Next is Oxbow Racing with 10 nominations, followed by Earle I. Mack and the partnerships tandem of Mrs. John Magnier and Michael Tabor at nine each.

As a side issue, the Godolphin entries and the five nominees from Sheikh Mohammed’s Darley Stable give the Dubai-based sheikh 12 possible runners in the race to America’s Triple Crown.

Headlining the sire list is the return to the top of 1992 Horse of the Year A.P. Indy, tied with Unbridled’s Song for the top spot with 14 progeny. Notable, also, is the strong appearance made by young sire Medaglia d’Oro, second on the list with 13 nominees, followed by Grand Slam with nine and Lion Heart, Seeking the Gold and Distorted Humor, last year’s leader, tied with eight apiece.

The run to racing’s Triple Crown begins with the $2-million, 135th Kentucky Derby on Saturday, May 2, at Louisville’s historic Churchill Downs. The second leg is set for the 134th running of the $1-million Preakness Stakes Saturday, May 16, at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Md., and the wrap-up comes in the 141st edition of the $1- million Belmont Stakes Saturday, June 6.