Jockey error. Stumbling out of the gate. Injury. A safety pin.
All are reasons — legitimate or not — that have been given to explain the failures of the last 12 horses to go to the Belmont Stakes with a chance to become racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner. Could we be adding “nasal strip standoff” to the list?
One day after Kentucky Derby champ California Chrome cruised to a 1 1/2-length victory in the Preakness Stakes, putting the handsome chestnut colt one win away from ending a 35-year Triple Crown drought (the last was Affirmed in 1978), trainer Art Sherman suggested that the horse might not race in the Belmont on June 7 if he’s not allowed to wear the equine nasal strip that he has worn during his six-race winning streak. The strips, which claim to improve airflow and breathing, are banned by New York’s racing stewards.
“This guy [California Chrome co-owner] Perry Martin, he might not run [in the Belmont] if they say you can’t run with a nasal strip,” Sherman said on Sunday. “He’s very funny about things like that.”
But threatening to hold out your horse with history and millions on the line is one thing; actually doing it is another. The safest bet during the Triple Crown season is that this nasal strip showdown will be resolved, and that it will not keep California Chrome from entering the starting gate at Belmont Park. Too many people have too much at stake for the horse not to run:
- New York Racing Association. Not only does NYRA, which conducts racing at the three New York tracks, benefit from having a Triple Crown on the line at the Belmont — 120,000-plus fans could attend to see California Chrome run, more than double what the track would get otherwise — but this year the organization also has vastly improved the caliber of races on the Belmont Stakes day card. (NYRA also increased the purse of the Belmont from $1 million to $1.5 million.) The third leg of the Triple Crown is supposed to be the signature race on NYRA’s signature day. Millions of dollars in revenue will be lost if California Chrome sits this one out.
- The connections of California Chrome. The country has been enamored with the rags-to-riches story of Average Joe co-owners Martin and Steve Coburn, who bred the horse for the relatively paltry sum of $10,500. But the possible financial ramifications of having a Triple Crown winner (the winner’s share of the Belmont purse, the increase in stud fees, et al) are obvious. Also, do Sherman, Coburn and Martin want to go down as the people who held a possible Triple Crown winner out of the Belmont because of a six-inch nasal strip?
- NBC. National overnight ratings for the network’s Preakness coverage on Saturday jumped 5 percent over 2013 and were the best since 2010. The storyline of California Chrome’s connections is the obvious catalyst. And whenever a Triple Crown is not on the line, Belmont ratings barely move the needle. NBC, which pays NYRA for the opportunity to televise the Belmont, would not be a happy rights holder if the horse does not run.
Two years ago, I’ll Have Another won the Derby and Preakness wearing the same nasal strip and came to Belmont Park with a chance to make history. His connections were told that the horse would not be able to race with the strip and were going to comply with the racing stewards’ decision. The horse, however, had to be scratched the day before the race with a career-ending injury.
In the end, someone will swerve in this high-stakes game of nasal strip chicken. That someone may come from the New York side. That someone may come from the Chrome corner. No one can be sure whether California Chrome will win the Triple Crown. But it’s a sure bet that a nasal strip won’t be what stops him.
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Gene Menez is a writer and editor who spent almost 14 years at Sports Illustrated and has covered dozens of sublime performances (Tiger Woods in the 2000 U.S. Open; Steph Curry in the ’08 NCAA Tournament) and fantastic finishes (’99 Ryder Cup; ’04 Belmont Stakes). He lives with his beautiful wife and baby girl in Austin, Texas. You can follow him on Twitter @genemenez.