The paint on the weathervane at Pimlico, which carries the colors of the Preakness winner, had barely dried before California Chrome’s Triple Crown bid erupted in controversy.
The chestnut colt’s length and a half victory on Saturday afternoon put to rest any lingering doubts that his performance in the Kentucky Derby was the result only of good racing luck or slow competition; winner now of six in a row, California Chrome will carry with him to Belmont Park the hopes of several generations, who hope each year to see the first Triple Crown winner since 1978.
As he did in the Kentucky Derby, California Chrome wore nasal strips when he ran in the Preakness. Similar to those worn by human athletes, they keep his airways open and are said by their creator to reduce bleeding in horses’ lung, as does the controversial medication furosemide, which is permitted in all U.S. racing jurisdictions and on which California Chrome runs. Nasal strips are permitted in Kentucky and Maryland, where the first two legs of the Triple Crown were run; they have not been permitted in New York, but that may be about to change.
In 2012, I’ll Have Another came to Belmont having won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness; he too ran wearing nasal strips, but his trainer, Doug O’Neill, was told when he got to New York that the horse would have to run without them.
The use of nasal strips doesn’t violate any rules of racing in New York; they are not explicitly forbidden by the state’s Gaming Commission, which regulates Thoroughbred racing. Nasal strips fall under a vague rule in which stewards, who enforce racing’s rules, are given authority to determine the types of equipment with which a horse can run.
Three stewards oversee racing at Belmont Park. One represents the New York Racing Association (NYRA), which runs the racetrack; one represents The Jockey Club, which oversees the integrity of the breeding process; one represents the Gaming Commission.
In 2012, The Jockey Club’s steward told the Daily Racing Form that the decision was made to forbid their use essentially because they are unregulated and because too many questions exist about their use.
On Sunday morning, apprised of the practices in New York, California Chrome’s trainer Art Sherman “raised the specter,” according to the Courier-Journal’s Jennie Rees, that not being able to wear the strips might prevent him from bringing the horse to New York, raising a social media maelstrom.
Within hours, the New York Gaming Commission announced that if it received a request to use nasal strips at Belmont, the stewards would fully evaluate the request and make a determination, based on New York’s Thoroughbred rule 4033.8: “Only equipment specifically approved by the stewards shall be worn or carried by a jockey or a horse in a race.”
That was one of three rules cited in a 2010 ruling in which the stewards disqualified a horse for racing with a nasal strip.
By the end of the day, the publicity office at Santa Anita Park – which has no connection to Belmont Park – had tweeted that according to NYRA’s senior vice president of racing operations Martin Panza, the connections of California Chrome need only make a formal request to use the strips in order to be given permission to do so; the account later reported that a formal request had been made, and the Daily Racing Form reported that a decision would be made by Tuesday.
Panza’s role in the proceedings is not clear, as according to the racing rules, it is the stewards and not NYRA executives who will determine whether the strips can be used. NYRA was unable to provide clarification on Sunday; the Gaming Commission didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail request for more information.
The story of California Chrome has captured the public’s imagination: modestly bred, out of a mare that cost $8,000 and by a sire who commanded only $2,500 at stud, he is owned in part by a man who dreamed that this horse would win the Kentucky Derby. Steven Coburn and Perry Martin own and bred California Chrome, but the “DAP” and the donkey on their silks represent “Dumb Ass Partners,” which is what they call themselves.
The New York Racing Association has been besieged by scandal and bad press for more than a decade; it has recently alienated its fans by raising ticket prices and offering what is widely perceived as an unsatisfactory customer experience. The chance for a Triple Crown carries with it the possibility of doubling the number of people who will show up on June 7.
In the eyes of the public, there are good guys here and there are bad guys here; public sentiment has offered little concern for any New York precedent in similar matters, focused on wanting to see a horse run for the Triple Crown in three weeks.
Whatever decision the stewards come to is likely to have its detractors. Should they decide to allow the strips, they run the risk of being seen as capricious, allowing one horse to run in them while two years ago denying another horse the same opportunity. (I’ll Have Another did not end up running for the Triple Crown that year; he was withdrawn from the race the day before due to injury.) Should they make a decision consistent with the call in 2012, they will be seen as denying a horse a chance at racing history.