Two of the truest barometers for measuring the health of the Thoroughbred industry are its results in the sales ring and its commitment to its classic contests.
When early nominations for the 2012 Triple Crown races were released Saturday, it further confirmed that confidence has returned in the sport following a spell of economic hardship.
Led by juvenile champion Hansen and Grade I winner Union Rags, a total of 397 3-year-olds were made eligible during the early nomination phase to compete in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes — American horse racing's Triple Crown.
This year's nomination total is a 9 percent increase over the 364 early nominees from 2011. It represents not only the first uptick in numbers after three years of declines but also the largest total since 2009, when 412 3-year-olds were made eligible during the early period.
The boost in nominations comes at a time when the industry as a whole is enjoying some positive results. After struggling through the economic downturn that hit in 2008, the Thoroughbred auction arena produced overall increases in 2011 — a trend that continued when the Keeneland January horses of all ages sale posted across-the-board increases last month.
"You hope that, like the recent boost in the health of the sales market, (the increase in nominations) is a sign the economy overall is turning around," said John Asher, vice president of racing communications for Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. "When you have good news in the sales, like we had, and the nominations rising ... it's not a reason for a huge party but it is a reason to feel good about our business and think we might be heading up."
This year's early nomination period, during which each nomination was accompanied by a $600 fee, closed on Jan. 21. A late period for nominations — during which each nomination must be accompanied by a $6,000 fee — will conclude on March 24.
Last year produced 13 late nominees to bring the 2011 nomination total to 377.
Even in tough times, the lure of the Triple Crown races has always held up. Considering all three of last year's contests were won by long shots — Animal Kingdom shocking foes in the Derby, Shackleford taking the Preakness and Ruler On Ice reigning in the Belmont — owners may be even more willing to take a stab with their sophomores.
"If you look at last year with all three Triple Crown-winning horses, all of their connections were enjoying the first success in Triple Crown races — owner, jockey and trainer," Asher said. "Last year showed again that a good horse can come from anywhere. I think if some of those new owners and prospective owners are watching those races closely, they might think, 'If things go right, I can do that.' "
Of this year's 397 nominations, 344 are colts. There are 37 geldings and 10 ridglings.
A total of six fillies have been nominated, headed by Anita Cauley's On Fire Baby, winner of the Grade II Golden Rod Stakes at Churchill Downs on Nov. 26.
Five-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Todd Pletcher leads all trainers for the third consecutive year with 32 Triple Crown nominees. Ahmed Zayat leads all owners with 13 nominees.