Breathless

Noses hold a prominent position in the world of horse racing. Unless something has gone terribly wrong, this is the part of the horse that is first to cross the finish line, stopping the teletimer, and determining the winner. This explains why betting to win is called “putting it on the nose”.

Noses have also played an outsized role in two of the most dramatic runnings of the Belmont Stakes. The last Triple Crown winner – Affirmed in 1978 – gained his everlasting fame because after 12 furlongs around the Belmont oval, he was ahead of Alydar by the length of his nose. Twenty years later, Real Quiet was denied the Triple Crown when Victory Gallop was able to get his nose to the wire first, despite being fouled by the Derby and Preakness winner. The Belmont Park stewards, denied the opportunity to order a brave and monumental disqualification once Victory Gallop won the photo, instead, first thanked their lucky stars, and then insisted that they would have taken down Real Quiet had the photo gone the other way, by releasing a brave-sounding statement: “The judgment can’t really be interpreted because of the Triple Crown. The facts speak for themselves.” Yeah, OK. Let’s hope they bought Victory Gallop a Guiness, or at least threw him a few peppermints. It may be their job, but even stewards don’t want to be in the position of taking down an otherwise deserving Triple Crown winner.

Victory Gallop and his trainer, Elliot Walden.

Victory Gallop and his trainer, Elliot Walden.

Now, sixteen years later, the Belmont Park stewards are looking down a long face, and once again finding a thoroughbred’s nose standing in the way of a potential Triple Crown winner. Only this time, the nose in question is the one belonging to California Chrome, this year’s Derby and Preakness winner. California Chrome would seem to have little use for his nose of late, having won his last six races by open lengths, but as an obligate nasal breather, his honker is in fact a physiological requirement. Therein lies the rub.

California Chrome wears nasal strips when he races. In the occasionally Kafkaesque world of the New York Racing Association, racing with nasal strips is not banned, but neither is it permitted. Falling under the broad category of “equipment”, it is up to the NYRA stewards to decide whether or not California Chrome gets to wear that big, old band-aid across his nose.

According to a statement issued via the NYSGC’s Twitter account, “If (a) request to use nasal strips is made, (a) decision on whether to permit or not will be evaluated and determined by the Stewards. NYSGC TB Rule 4033.8: ‘Only equipment specifically approved by stewards shall be worn or carried by jockey or horse in a race.’ “

So, what’s the hangup? Let California Chrome wear his nasal strip and let us find out if he is good enough to become the 12th American Triple Crown winner. But the hangup is that two years ago, with the same rule (above) presumably in effect, trainer Doug O’Neill was told that his Triple Crown aspirant I’ll Have Another could not wear a nasal strip if he ran in the Belmont (which he subsequently scratched out of, because of an injury). This recent history puts the stewards in a pickle: stay consistent, and deny California Chrome the use of his nasal strip, and risk that his connections are not bluffing about running him in the Los Alamitos Derby instead of the Belmont Stakes; or, do an about face and risk being deemed craven flip-floppers, ready to trade their remaining credibility in order to guarantee that the big day does not fall apart over a breathing aid.

Regular followers of American thoroughbred racing will admit that, on occasion (say, once a month), the industry suffers from bad relations with the general public. Now, on the brink of the completion of a Cinderella story with glass slippers that actually fit, racing is once more on the verge of shooting itself in the foot. At the risk of sounding realistic and competent, the NYRA stewards should say something like “We believe that it is in racing’s best interests to have not only uniform medication policies, but also, as much as is possible, uniform equipment policies. In light of there being no provision against the use of nasal strips at Belmont Park, and out of a sense of fairness to horses who have used them legally in other states, we will allow any horse to use such equipment on NYRA tracks, and we strongly support the goal of uniform medication and equipment rules going forward.”

This would allow California Chrome to wear his nasal strip in the Belmont, and Doug O’Neill’s Goldencents to wear his in the Metropolitan Handicap earlier in the race card. Management at Los Alamitos might be a little disappointed, but you can’t please everyone.

The NYRA stewards are expected to issue their ruling early this week. Last year’s Belmont winner was treated with Bute and Banamine in the days leading up to the race, and got Lasix on race day. We don’t yet know what California Chrome’s Belmont RX will look like, but, given what is already allowable, it’s hard to believe anyone would begrudge him a nasal strip and a little more oxygen, as he tries to do something so difficult that it has not been accomplished for nearly thirty-six years.

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