John McGrath: Ban on nasal strips must not force a Triple Crown no-show

Staff WriterMay 19, 2014 

With a chance to win the first Triple Crown in 36 years, California Chrome could revive a sport desperately seeking a compelling champion.

Between the blue-collar owners, the jockey who used to drive a cab in Mexico City, the 77-year old trainer and the horse produced by the breeding of an $8,000 mare to a $2,500 stallion, California Chrome’s saga is the stuff of a movie script.

Comparisons to Seabiscuit are not a stretch.

“He became the people’s horse in the Depression because he was the little guy,” co-owner Steve Coburn said Saturday, after California Chrome followed up on a Kentucky Derby victory with an even more impressive effort in the Preakness Stakes. “We’re doing that in the same kind of way. No one ever gave it any credence, and we shouldn’t be where we are now.”

But where will California Chrome be June 7, when the Belmont Stakes poses the last and most challenging test of all? Chrome’s status was put in question Sunday by trainer Art Sherman, who suggested the chestnut colt’s reliance on nasal strips could be a deal breaker.

Seems nasal strips are disallowed in New York, home of Belmont Park. Two years ago, the New York Racing Association prohibited I’ll Have Another from wearing nasal strips in the race that might have determined the 2012 Triple Crown winner. Despite the restriction, trainer Doug O’Neill chose to enter I’ll Have Another, a late scratch because of tendinitis problems that hastened the colt’s retirement.

California Chrome’s camp wasn’t sounding as malleable Sunday. Sherman told the New York Daily News he’d leave the decision up to co-owner Perry Martin, noting Martin “might not run if they say you can’t run with a nasal strip. He’s very funny about things like that.”

Obvious question: Are nasal strips so essential that a restriction on them could scotch a Triple Crown bid?

Related question: What is their function?

According to the Flair Equine Nasal Strip website, nasal strips “help prevent fatigue-related injuries, help protect the lungs from injury and bleeding, and promote optimum athletic performance.”

In what may or may not be a coincidence, California Chrome’s six-race winning streak began when the horse was equipped with nasal strips.

Here’s what I don’t get: California has no rules banning nasal strips. Neither does Kentucky nor Maryland nor any other state aside from New York. A set of consistent regulations, it seems to me, would be a good idea.

The National Thoroughbred Racing Association, formed in 1998, is the closest thing horse racing has to a “league.” But when it comes to rules, every state is sovereign. Is there a crazier way to run a sports operation?

The good news: There’s some wiggle room — almost three weeks — to figure out a way for California Chrome to compete in the Belmont, and to compete with nasal strips.

A request to appeal the rule must be submitted to the three stewards overseeing the race, and I can’t imagine bureaucracy trumping common sense at such a crucial time for a struggling industry.

On the other hand, I can’t imagine California Chrome’s owners withdrawing from an event that could seal their legacy. Two out of three ain’t bad, as the Meat Loaf song goes, but two out of three ain’t historic, either.

Since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978, 12 horses have finished first in both the Derby and the Preakness before tiring (or disappearing) down the home stretch of the mile-and-a-half Belmont.

The likes of Sunday Silence, Real Quiet and Smarty Jones failed to claim the Crown, but while losing, they exuded valiance and nobility.

Withdrawing because of a major beef with an obscure rule — No. 4033.8 in the NYRA rulebook — would not exude valiance and nobility.

California Chrome’s Triple Crown bid can’t end with a no-show. It just can’t.

“America needs to believe in something, whether it be a person or an animal,” Carolyn Coburn, the wife of California Chrome co-owner Steve, said Saturday. “I think that’s the reason everybody has embraced us so much. It’s given them hope to think that there’s these people of meager means, and look, anybody can do it.”

Are we clear? Almost anybody can muster up a modest investment in a horse and win millions of dollars from the horse’s offspring. It’s the ultimate American dream.

But can anybody regulate horse racing rules that make nasal strips permissible everywhere but in New York? Anybody?


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