California Chrome needs to be allowed to breathe right.
Barely 24 hours after California Chrome won the Preakness Stakes in the kind of style normally reserved for Bo Derek, the buzz has all but vanished. The reason: equine nasal strips. And no, Chrome doesn't have sleep apnea. He races with them.
California Chrome has used them in each race over his six-race winning streak, a streak that has spanned three states: California, Kentucky and Maryland. But New York—host of the Triple Crown's final leg—may rip the strip right off Chrome's muzzle. If so California Chrome may skip the Belmont Stakes and bury his own chances at becoming the 12th horse to win the elusive Triple Crown.
Ultimately, it may come down to hurt feelings and the insecurity of one of California Chrome's principal owners, Perry Martin. Trainer Art Sherman told Gary Mihoces of USA Today:
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...
Perry Martin...he might not run if they say you can't run with a nasal strip. He's very funny about things like that.*
(*The owners felt mistreated at Churchill Downs and seem to be holding a grudge that may cost the sport of racing a legitimate Triple Crown bid.)
This has the makings of a contentious battle. Team Chrome holds all the leverage here. A Triple Crown runner entered into the Belmont Stakes field is worth millions upon millions of dollars. Without him, betting will drop significantly and attendance will drop by 20 to 30 percent.
Assuming good weather and Chrome is in the field, upward of 100,000 will show up at Belmont Park (120,139 people, a record, were on hand in 2004 to watch Smarty Jones). Think of the beer, hot dogs, hamburgers, lemonade, tickets sales, all slashed because of a standoff over a piece of equipment that allows the airways to dilate a few extra centimeters.
Hoppertunity, second choice in the Derby before he was scratched, offered a resolution:
And people simply won't tune in to their televisions without a shot at history on the table. People want to see a Triple Crown. People, at the very least, want to see an attempt at the Triple Crown.
Follow this sport long enough, and it'll find any number of ways to disappoint its patrons—whether it be increased takeout percentages that strip horse players of additional earnings, or faltering customer service, or the injury to a horse people hunger to see.
This whole situation is bananas. NYRA CEO and president Christopher Kay has yet to complete his first year at the helm. He needs to make this right. There's no time like the present to make an amendment to whatever statute there is in New York that doesn't permit nasal strips.
The standardbreds are allowed to use them—why not thoroughbreds? Thoroughbreds can use tongue ties and blinkers. Nasal strips can be used in several other states, so what is it about New York?
Ultimately, it's up to the stewards. If they have half a brain—strike that—a quarter-brain, they'll sign off on the nasal strips not only for this race but also for perpetuity.
Of the rule, Sherman told Childs Walker of The Baltimore Sun, "That is really bogus."
Say Chrome skips the Belmont because New York stands its ground. Instead of 100,000 people, maybe 65,000-to-75,000 will show. Grandstand and clubhouse tickets are $10 and $30, respectively. For fun, let's take the average of the two, $20. NYRA could take a loss of $500,000-$700,000 from ticket sales alone.
NBC won't be happy, either. It stands to lose a lot of eyeballs if Chrome isn't granted clearance.
Smarty Jones, who like Chrome has a tremendous "people's following," drew 21.89 million viewers on June 5, 2004. In 2005, 2006 and 2007—years without a live Triple Crown threat—the ratings were 7.71, 5.04 and 4.86. In 2008, when Big Brown was a candidate for the Triple Crown, the ratings spiked to 13.10. Triple Crowns matter.
Someone may lean on the stewards and say, "Listen, guys, you're gonna do this or else...Well, you heard of Luca Brasi, right?"
The choice is simple. If NYRA is worried about setting a precedent in allowing various forms of equipment to be used, then that's a petty concern. There aren't a whole lot that can be used legally, and since so many other states grant the use of nasal strips, not getting on board with Kentucky and Maryland is worthy of treason.
Not to mention stupid.