On Saturday afternoon at New York’s Belmont Park, a 3-year-old colt named I’ll Have Another will be equipped with horseshoes, bridle and saddle as he tries to become the first Triple Crown champion in 34 years. He will, however, be without the equine Breathe Right strips that he sported while winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.
The white adhesive strips, stretched across the horse’s nasoincisive notch a few inches above the nostrils, are intended to help the animal breathe, run better and prevent bleeding of the lungs. Within the United States, they are banned only in New York.
The horse’s trainer has accepted the state’s sanction, calling it a “zero issue.” But for Jim Chiapetta, it’s the only issue that matters.
Chiapetta is a veterinarian and founder of Flair LLC, which invented and produces the strips. (“Flair Strips: Prevent. Protect. Perform.”) He hoped the Belmont Stakes would be the last leg in the resurgence of the strip’s — and his — fortunes.
The New York Racing Association (NYRA) and the state’s all-powerful racing officials, known as stewards, are unsympathetic. “Nosy NYRA strips ‘Another’ of ‘edge,’ ” read a May 27 New York Post headline, echoing articles in outlets such as Bloodhorse.com. The ban is rooted in New York regulation 4033.8, which allows horses and riders to carry or wear only equipment approved by the stewards.
In a last-ditch effort to reverse the ruling — or perhaps to gain publicity for his business — Chiapetta has hired Robert Zimmerman, a noted Long Island public relations executive and Democratic donor. Chiapetta’s primary talking point: Flair is a more natural alternative to the controversial drug Lasix, which is also used to prevent bleeding in the lungs during extreme exertion. “My Lasix-dependent bleeder wore FLAIR all 30 performances,” reads one Flair Web site testimonial from trick rider Shawn Brackett. “NEVER BLED A SINGLE TIME!”
Chiapetta also wonders why the stewards forbid the strips for thoroughbreds but allow them for standardbred horses (“the ones who pull carts”).
His conversations with racing officials have not gone well. Ted Hill, the Jockey Club steward at Belmont Park, made it clear that in fairness to the betting public there would be no Flair in Belmont. “What if you have a wet, cold, rainy day and the horse is supposed to be using a nasal strip and comes to the paddock and doesn’t have it and you can’t apply one?” Hill said. “Your options are to ignore it, which isn’t very fair to the public, or let the horse run for purse money only or scratch the horse entirely.”
Chiapetta did not fare any better with Carmine Donofrio, the New York State Racing and Wagering Board steward.
“Do you have a minute?” Chiapetta said he asked Donofrio.
“No! What do you want?”
Chiapetta suggested there was a good deal of science recommending the strips.
“I don’t need no science,” Donofrio replied, according to Chiapetta, who said he took notes during the exchange. Donofrio’s office declined to comment on private conversations.
On Tuesday, Chiapetta said he got a callback from the secretary of John Sabini, chairman of the New York State Racing and Wagering Board. She said Sabini would be available June 26 — weeks after the race. “Sorry, he’s busy,” she added.
“I’ve always been a ‘what if’ kind of person,” said Ed Blach, chief executive at Dr. Ed Inc. It was Blach, living in Roswell, N.M., in 1997, who awoke at 3 a.m. with the idea of nasal strips for horses. The next morning he called Chiapetta, an old friend from veterinary school. The two laughed, and then they got serious.
Racing horses inhale and exhale enormous amounts of air through their noses, sometimes causing a bleeding in the lungs that forces the animal to pull up in a race. Chiapetta and Blach identified the area of tissue on the horse where they thought a strip might open nasal passageways. Chiapetta slipped through an unlocked back door at the University of Minnesota where a veterinary pathologist friend left horse heads that Chiapetta said he could, “you know, dissect.” When the two inventors had a working model, they conducted clandestine testing at the Flag Is Up farm, home to the real-life Horse Whisperer, in Santa Ynez Valley, Calif.
They needed a name.
“Air, it helps air. Nostrils, helps flare nostrils,” recalled Chiapetta. “And somehow we just said, ‘Hey, Flair.’ ”
They needed a business partner.
“We went to the human Breathe Right people,” said Chiapetta, who brought a horse skull to a New Year’s Eve meeting with the company’s chief executive in 1998 to demonstrate his idea. “He said, ‘Oh, yeah. Got it.’ ”
And they needed a design.
Chiapetta turned to a friend at the Breathe Right company “who was into old Japanese B movies.” This friend came up with a design: “It’s Mothra!” Chiapetta said. “The giant moth.”
The technicians at Breathe Right also figured out how to get the strip to stick to “a hairy, sweaty nose,” Chiapetta said.
The Breathe Right people sent the invention to Howard H. Erickson, an expert of exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage in horses at Kansas State University. He described himself as “doubtful.” Then he put the Flair strip on a horse, put the horse on a treadmill and saw “the same reduction observed with Lasix.”
In October 1999, a horse wearing the strip — “I want to say Burrito,” said Chiapetta — won a big race, and the strip was soon featured in the New York Times. The vets and Breathe Right launched their product a month later at the Breeders’ Cup in Florida. Three out of eight winners sported the patch. It was the last good news for a while.
That year, after a brief trial period, New York banned the strips. Soon after, Breathe Right got out of the horse business. Over the next few years, another partnership went nowhere.
In 2004, a cult following of the strips grew among Olympic riders of Three-Day Eventing (dressage, cross-country, show jumping). A horse wearing a Flair strip won the 2006 Breeders’ Cup Mile. The U.S. Equestrian Federation asked Flair to provide strips for horses at the 2008 Olympics. Around that time, Chiapetta bought out Blach in an amicable agreement.
Last year, things continued to break his way. Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) introduced a bill to ban performance-enhancing drugs, including Lasix, the indiscriminate use of which he characterized as part of a “culture of corruption” in horse-racing. And Doug O’Neill, a trainer facing a 45-day suspension in July for a suspicious test result in one of his horses, started outfitting his horses with the nasal strip. Chiapetta watched from his farm in Delano, Minn., as one of those horses, I’ll Have Another, won the Kentucky Derby. A few weeks later, Chiapetta’s cellphone buzzed with text messages when I’ll Have Another came from behind to win the Preakness.
It’s almost certain that the horse will race Saturday without breathing strips. But Chiapetta still believes he played a role in racing history. “I got to be part of it in an indirect way,” he said.