A day after California Chrome won the Preakness, his trainer raised the startling possibility that he might not try for the Triple Crown because of New York rules barring a nasal adhesive strip the colt has used in recent races.
If California Chrome were to win the Belmont Stakes on June 7, he'd capture the first Triple Crown in 36 years. The possibility that the charismatic horse could pull off the sport's signature achievement has the thoroughbred racing world abuzz. For years, racing lovers have said the sport needs a superstar in the mold of Secretariat or Seattle Slew to mitigate declines in attendance and mainstream interest.
California Chrome's connections have seemed as excited at the possibility as anyone. But that didn't stop trainer Art Sherman from raising doubts Sunday when asked about the New York policy.
"Hey, we might have a little controversy here," the 77-year-old Sherman said as he bantered with reporters outside Stall 40 at Pimlico Race Course just after 7 a.m. Sunday.
Lee Park, spokesman for the New York State Gaming Commission, issued a statement in response: "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."
It wasn't clear how serious Sherman was, and he did say he could not speak for the horse's co-owners, Steve Coburn and Perry Martin. But he didn't back away from his comments when pressed.
"It might be an issue," he said. "I'm not saying it will be."
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 the heat of competition. Sherman said Martin raised the idea of using the strip for California Chrome, and the trainer believes it has helped.
"I think it gives him that extra oomph, especially if you're going 1 1/2 miles," he said, referring to the length of the Belmont, which will be run June 7 in Elmont, N.Y. "Anytime you can have a good air passage, it means a lot."
A similar controversy unfolded in 2012, when New York officials prohibited I'll Have Another from wearing a nasal strip in his attempt to complete a Triple Crown run. Trainer Doug O'Neill was going to run his horse without the strip. But the situation never came to a head, because I'll Have Another scratched from the Belmont because of a sore tendon.
The issue highlights an enduring frustration in thoroughbred racing — the arcane differences in rules from state to state. California, Kentucky and Maryland, for instance, have no regulations prohibiting the use of nasal strips, which have been common in the sport for about 15 years. In New York, the strips are allowed in harness racing but not for thoroughbreds, though the decision ultimately lies with stewards governing each track.
"That is really bogus," Sherman said of the rule. He added he was certain Martin and Coburn would be "upset" about the situation and that Martin could easily take it as a sign California Chrome isn't wanted at Belmont.
During the controversy around I'll Have Another, New York racing officials didn't offer specific criticisms of the strips. They said they simply hadn't figured out how to regulate them.
The specter of unrest at Belmont interrupted an otherwise blissful morning for the connections of California Chrome. They partied after his Preakness victory — Sherman joked that he played a mean tambourine on the O'Jays soul hit "Love Train" — and were back at the barn before 6 a.m. Sunday.
Sherman plans to let California Chrome relax at Pimlico on Monday and then transport him to New York by van Tuesday. He'll apparently travel with Preakness runner-up Ride On Curlin.
Even without the nasal-strip fracas, the Belmont shapes up as the most difficult challenge of California Chrome's career. He has established himself as the class of this 3-year-old crop. But in New York, refreshed old foes will line up to take him on like monsters springing back to life in a horror film.
Among the possible challengers are Commanding Curve, Danza and Wicked Strong, who finished second, third and fourth, respectively, at the Kentucky Derby. All skipped the Preakness, meaning they would run on five weeks' rest in the Belmont.
Repeat entrants from the Preakness could include Ride On Curlin, third-place finisher Social Inclusion and eighth-place finisher Kid Cruz. All are waiting for fatigue or bad luck to catch up to California Chrome, who stands undefeated as a 3-year-old and has pulled away rather easily from every field he's faced.
He wouldn't be the first horse to look unassailable in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, only to falter in the Belmont. Since Affirmed took the last Triple Crown in 1978, a dozen have won the first two legs only to fall short in New York.
In 2008 Big Brown looked, if anything, even more dominant than California Chrome. But he essentially gave up midrace in the Belmont.
Others, such as Smarty Jones in 2004 and Silver Charm in 1997, came agonizingly close in second-place finishes.
Talk this year has centered on the very nature of the Triple Crown series. With many trainers now skipping the Preakness so they'll have fresh horses in the Belmont, some industry leaders — including Maryland Jockey Club President Tom Chuckas — have called for a more extended Triple Crown schedule.
Chuckas says he'd like to see the Kentucky Derby run in early May, the Preakness held in early June and the Belmont run in early July. He has promised to discuss reform with his counterparts in Kentucky and New York.
Though some traditionalists say schedule changes would destroy the meaning of the Triple Crown, California Chrome's connections are on board.
After the Preakness, Coburn said horses that don't run in the Kentucky Derby should not be eligible for the subsequent two races.
"There are people out there trying to upset the apple cart," he said. "They don't want a Triple Crown winner. They want a paycheck."
Sherman endorsed Chuckas' idea for a revised schedule, saying it would encourage more horses to run in all three races.
"You'd have a lot more Derby horses that try it," he said. "To me, if you're going for the Triple Crown, go for the Triple Crown. Don't pick your spots."
Any change won't come in time to help his horse. But Sherman sounds plenty confident in California Chrome heading into the Belmont. He sees the greater distance as little problem.
"I have a good feeling about it," Sherman said. "I'm really confident going into this race. Watching him run yesterday after two weeks and showing the courage he had, they better have their running shoes on. I don't care how many fresh shooters they have there. He's the real McCoy."