Will Belmont Curtail California Chrome's Quest for the Triple Crown?
In today’s world a horse race may seem trivial, but the three races comprising the Triple Crown, the Super Bowl of the animal world, is very different. People with no interest in horse racing, people who wouldn’t otherwise know or care about the difference between a thoroughbred horse and a seahorse, flock to Churchill Downs, Pimlico, and Belmont race tracks in the hundreds of thousands, decked out in all their finery, to witness these races. Over 15 million people watched the Kentucky Derby this year, glued to their television sets on a fine Saturday afternoon. Every one of them captivated, for just a few moments, by speed, beauty, and power. So why would Belmont, home of the most grueling and final leg of the Triple Crown, derail the chances of California Chrome, winner of the first two races in the 2014 Triple Crown?
California Chrome handily won the 140th running of Kentucky Derby. Two weeks later, his health questionable due to a blister found in his throat, California Chrome nevertheless won Maryland’s Preakness. A calm competitor, the beautiful chestnut had become “America’s Horse.” Excitement about his chances of becoming the first horse since Affirmed 36 years ago to take the crown, gripped the nation’s imagination. Horse racing does that.
During some of America’s darkest times, race horses have, unaccountably, fueled the hopes of the nation. Seabiscuit, small, unattractive, and ungainly, was the underdog’s hero. Surprisingly, he had blistering speed and a wonderful personality. He became more popular than FDR for a time. Seabiscuit gave Americans mired in the Depression, a reason to believe that if he could rise above the morass, they could too. Seabiscuit entranced and ignited the country.
Secretariat, winner of the 1973 Triple Crown, performed feats that will never, in all probability, be beaten. The object of America’s adoration, he not only broke every one of the Triple Crown’s speed records, he smashed track records for Churchill Downs, Pimlico, and Belmont. He won Belmont, the longest of the three races, by an astounding 31 lengths… roughly 280 feet.
On Sunday the Associated Press reported that California Chrome may not run the last race in the Triple Crown. Belmont has a rule forbidding him from wearing a non-medicated, Flair nasal strip. The ruling originates with New York State Racing Association stewards. Not the Gaming Commission, the stewards. ABC News gives details: “Among the Gaming Commission's rules governing Belmont Park is one that states: Only equipment specifically approved by the stewards shall be worn or carried by a jockey or a horse in a race.” Why would this strip, available to any horse, be outlawed by Belmont stewards? And no one else?
The nasal strip is identical (except for size, allowing for the shape of a horse’s head) to those worn by professional athletes in the NFL or NBA and those worn by millions of ordinary sinus sufferers. California Chrome has worn the Flair strip in the past six races he’s run. He has won all six races. Flair strips are in common use at race tracks nationwide and are routine equipment for thoroughbreds. Neither officials at Churchill Downs nor Pimlico had any problem with the strips. USA Today reports: “On the website of Flair Equine Nasal Strips, it says: "Flair Strips are self-adhesive strips that promote optimum respiratory health of equine athletes at all levels by reducing airway resistance and providing improved airflow when your horse needs oxygen most..."
CNN reported that the New York Gaming Commission claims that no one has specifically requested use of the strips: “Neither the New York State Gaming Commission nor the stewards at the New York Racing Association have received a request to use nasal strips in the June 7 Belmont Stakes… If a request to use nasal strips is made, the decision on whether to permit them or not will be fully evaluated and determined by the stewards." That statement is even more disingenuous than it sounds; in 2012, I’ll Have Another had also won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Belmont denied him the use of the same nasal strips for the last leg of the journey. In whose interest is it to deny any horse the opportunity of becoming a Triple Crown victor?
America loves a winner. Especially when America is struggling to rise above another dark age. It is a rare and wonderful thing to root for a champion, with no political agenda. California Chrome deserves his shot at greatness…. and we deserve to see him try.
On Sunday night an official request was made by trainer, Art Sherman, to allow California Chrome permission to wear his breathing strip in the 6/7 Belmont Stakes. On Monday afternoon “unanimous permission” from the three stewards at Belmont was conferred upon California Chrome, permitting him to wear the Flair nasal breathing strip. Strangely enough, this decision was arrived at after the New York Gaming Commission instructed them to do so. New York Gaming Commission equine medical director, Scott Palmer, issued the following pronouncement: “I recommend that the stewards at state-based thoroughbred racetracks discontinue their ban on equine nasal strips… Equine nasal strips do not enhance equine performance nor do they pose a risk to equine health or safety and as such do not need to be regulated...I am unfamiliar with any research indicating that equine nasal strips enable a horse to run faster with nasal strips than without them. In other words, there is no evidence they have a performance enhancing effect."
A little too late for previous contenders for the Triple Crown. As mentioned previously, the Gaming Commission does not have the authority to write or undo stewards’ rules. One would guess that money factors into the decision. NBC, infuriated over the previous decision which would have potentially cost them, at the most conservative estimate, over half of their viewership for the Belmont Stakes, might have had something to do with the change of heart. Not to mention incensed fans who said that, perhaps, it was time to change the venue of the Triple Crown’s third leg; this could have cost Belmont -- and New York -- countless millions of dollars.
It would be a sad commentary if doing the right thing, when it is done, becomes just a by-product of following the money.