California Chrome and the case of the forbidden equine nasal strip

The tang of a mint julep on a muggy Louisville afternoon.The thoroughbreds trotting to the starting gate, muscled bodies shining in the sun as they await the pop of the starter pistol. Betting your last $2 on an unlikely trifecta, and watching it pay out at 36-to-1. And:

The Flair equine nasal strip.

The latest in racetrack performance technology perhaps lacks the romance of a sport associated with literary greats Ernest Hemingway and Charles Bukowski. However, the future of the Triple Crown was at stake Sunday when handicappers learned that California Chrome, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Maryland’s Preakness, might not be permitted to run in the Belmont Stakes because he wears a nasal strip:

USA Today:

The California-bred 3-year-old has won six consecutive races wearing nasal strips designed to open up his air passages. His trainer says that if New York racing officials rule California Chrome can’t wear them in the June 7 Belmont Stakes, he might not run the race that could give him the feat.

“I don’t know why they would ban you from wearing one. But we’ll have to cross that bridge when we get there, I guess,” 77-year-old Art Sherman said Sunday, a day after California Chrome followed up his victory in the Kentucky Derby with a win in the Preakness Stakes.


California Chrome with Victor Espinoza edges out Ride On Curlin, with Joel Rossario, to win the 139th running of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore MD, May 17, 2014. (Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

What’s so important about the nasal strip — an accoutrement that looks like a glorified Band-Aid? And why is it allowed in Kentucky and Maryland but maybe not in New York? New York racing authorities haven’t explained in the case of California Chrome. They haven’t yet made a formal decision.

But in 2012, a horse named I’ll Have Another was about to take a shot at the Belmont, the final race in the Triple Crown, when word came down that his nasal strip might be contraband. Back then, the Daily Racing Form wrote:

Dr. Ted Hill, the Jockey Club steward at Belmont Park, said the nasal strip issue has been reviewed a number of times and said the problem is how to regulate its use.

Part of the issue, Hill said, is what to do with a horse who was scheduled to wear a nasal strip if the strip comes off in the paddock or at the gate, perhaps because of wet weather. Further, Hill said there has not been a clamor among New York horsemen to use it.

‘We’ve never had someone say, “What can we do here because we’d like to use this product?”‘ Hill said. ‘There’s really been no push for it.’

Well, like those buoyant swimsuits banned from the Olympics, nasal strips offer an arguably unfair advantage. The company that makes them says they make the horses breathe better.

From the Flair Web site:

More than 7 separate clinical studies, several physiology and veterinary textbook articles, numerous symposia, presentations, discussions and debates confirm our original hypotheses. We have been awarded over 15 U.S. and international patents directed to the discovery that by supporting the external wall of the nasal passages, nasal strips reduce upper airway resistance in horses during exercise. Perhaps most importantly, we found that through the reduction of upper airway resistance, FLAIR Strips optimize horses’ performance and help horses stay healthier by protecting the lungs, reducing bleeding, reducing fatigue, and recovering more quickly after exercise. After their introduction at the 1999 Breeder’s Cup races and the 2000 Olympics, the Strips have been regularly used for training and competition by world class professional horsemen as well as amateur owners around the world.

Jockey Victor Espinoza celebrates aboard California Chrome after winning the 139th Preakness Stakes horse race at Pimlico Race Course, Saturday, May 17, 2014, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Jockey Victor Espinoza on California Chrome after winning the 139th Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course, May 17, 2014, in Baltimore. (Matt Slocum/AP)

According to the equine health care Web site the Horse, a professor of veterinary medicine who’s appeared at Flair events said the strips “support the soft tissue overlying the nasal passages during inspiration.” This allegedly prevents airways from shrinking during exertion and reduces pulmonary hemorrhage. Then again, the publication also cited another study showing the strips had no effect.

In a sport maligned by PETA for its reliance on performance enhancing drugs, nasal strips allegedly offer faster ponies sans injections. Not bad for a product that sells for about $13.

Curiously, nasal strips are permitted in New York for harness racing. But the line has been drawn in thoroughbred racing at New York Racing Association tracks.

Officials and I’ll Have Another’s handlers got to punt on whether the strips should be allowed in 2012 when the horse was withdrawn right before the Belmont because of a leg injury. No such opportunity may arise with California Chrome — and Flair is already rallying to California Chrome’s support. Again, from the company’s Web site:

Congratulations to CALIFORNIA CHROME, Trainer Art Sherman, and the entire California Chrome Team, for winning the first two legs of the Triple Crown — The Kentucky Derby and The Preakness Stakes. CALIFORNIA CHROME is a very special horse. We commend their team for choosing to protect him with FLAIR® Equine Nasal Strips. We will continue to do everything in our power to work with The New York Racing Association to get the strips approved for New York Thoroughbred racing as quickly as possible.

Handicappers can only await the outcome of horseracing’s Cuban Missile crisis, but some are already sweating it. As Joe Drape put it in the New York Times: “Nasal strip or not, let’s get Cinderella to the ball.”

 

Justin Moyer is deputy editor of the Morning Mix.
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