As California Chrome prepares to depart Baltimore early Tuesday, he'll do so with a clear path to run in the Belmont Stakes after New York officials ruled Monday that the Kentucky Derby and Preakness champion can wear a nasal strip to keep his airways clear during the third leg of the Triple Crown.
California Chrome's chase for thoroughbred racing's signature achievement seemed briefly imperiled Sunday when trainer Art Sherman said a previous New York practice barring the strips might cause his colt to skip the Belmont Stakes on June 7.
But New York officials acted quickly Monday to approve Sherman's request to use the adhesive, which California Chrome has worn throughout a six-race winning streak.
They released a statement saying the three race stewards at Belmont Park had unanimously agreed to let all horses use the strips, effective immediately.
The decision came two years after Belmont stewards told trainer Doug O'Neill he could not use a similar strip for I'll Have Another, who had also won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. O'Neill was going to start I'll Have Another without the strip but scratched his horse the day before the Belmont because of a sore tendon.
New York officials said that after Sherman made his request Sunday, they consulted with veterinarian Scott Palmer, the equine medical director for the New York State Gaming Commission. He wrote an opinion, recommending the stewards allow the 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," Palmer wrote. "While there is research to indicate that equine nasal strips decrease airway resistance in horses and may decrease the amount of bleeding associated with [exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage] to some degree, I am unfamiliar with any research indicating that equine nasal strips enable a horse to run faster with nasal strips than without them."
New York was the only state that barred the strips in thoroughbred racing, and in fact allowed them in harness racing.
Tom Chuckas, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, said he sees no reason why the strips should be barred.
"The bottom line is it's very different from some form of a performance-enhancing drug," Chuckas said Monday during his annual post-Preakness news conference. "It's nothing like that. Take a look at humans. You go into the drug store today, you can wear one. You don't need a prescription. It's not considered a drug, so I think it's OK."
The Flair Equine Nasal Strip is similar to adhesives used by some pro athletes, who say the strips, worn across the bridge of the nose, help them breathe in competition. Sherman said California Chrome's co-owner, Perry Martin, first raised the idea of using the strips, which have been common in racing for about 15 years.
The trainer believes they have helped. "I think it gives him that extra oomph, especially if you're going 1 1/2 miles," Sherman said Sunday, referring to the length of the Belmont Stakes. "Any time you can have a good air passage, it means a lot."
The brief uncertainty over California Chrome's status for the Belmont caused concern among racing lovers, who have yearned for a signature star to restore interest among casual fans. The chestnut colt is the latest, perhaps best hope given his superior performance on the track and his rise from humble origins.
Co-owner Steve Coburn has called California Chrome a hero to the little guy — bred for a modest $10,000 by novice horsemen and fine-tuned by a 77-year-old trainer who'd never entered a horse in a Triple Crown race.
He will now try to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. In the ensuing 36 years, a dozen horses have won the first two legs, only to fall short in the Belmont. California Chrome faces the daunting prospect of running the longest race he's ever attempted against a field packed with better-rested horses.
So far, he's bounced back well from his victory in Saturday's 139th Preakness, said assistant trainer Alan Sherman, Art's son.
"He came out of that race great, feeling good," Sherman said Monday at Pimlico Race Course. "He is usually tired for a few days but he was feeling really good. I am starting to realize the significance of it all. It has been a great ride this horse has put us on, and I never fathomed we would be one race away from winning the Triple Crown."