California Chrome’s Quest for Triple Crown; What a Difference a Day Makes

Written by Marilyn Assenheim on May 20, 2014

In today’s world a horse race may seem trivial but the three races comprising the Triple Crown, the Super Bowl of horse racing, 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 took the crown 36 years ago, 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 became America’s hero. Small, unattractive and ungainly, he was the underdog, in an America teeming with Depression underdogs.

Secretariat, winner of the 1973 Triple Crown, performed feats that will never, in all probability, be beaten. 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 the 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.

CNN reports that the New York Gaming Commission claims that no one has specifically requested use of the air passage strips on June 7: “…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.” In 2012, I’ll Have Another had also won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Belmont denied him the use of the same nasal strips.

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…and as such do not need to be regulated…there is no evidence they have a performance enhancing effect.

All of a sudden the strips are okay?

The Gaming Commission does not have the authority to create or undo stewards’ rules. One would guess that money factors into the overturned decision. Or strong-arming, depending on how one wishes to see it. NBC, infuriated over a diktat which could have cost them (at a 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 insisting that, perhaps, Belmont should no longer host the Triple Crown’s third leg; that would’ve cost Belmont…and New York…millions of dollars annually.

It would be tragic if doing the right thing were to become an unintentional by-product of “follow the money.”

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Marilyn Assenheim
Marilyn Assenheim was born and raised in New York City. She spent a career in healthcare management although she probably should have been a casting director. Or a cowboy. A serious devotee of history and politics, Marilyn currently lives in the NYC metropolitan area.