By Kristian Dyer
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It was a deep exhale for the horse racing community on Monday when the New York Racing Association announced that California Chrome, the latest Triple Crown contender, will compete in the upcoming Belmont Stakes and be allowed to use nasal strips.
Over the past six races, including wins in the Kentucky Derby and this past Saturday at the Preakness Stakes, California Chrome has worn nasal strips designed to expand the nostrils and help the horse breathe. But NYRA hasn’t allowed these strips – designed to open the nasal passages of horses – in any races of any type before. The connections for the Triple Crown hopeful hinted that their horse might not make the trip from Pimlico to Belmont for a bid at history.
A standoff seemed eminent until Monday, when NYRA and the stewards made the wise decision to allow California Chrome (and all horses in any and all races from now on) to use nasal strips in the future. It is a decision that was right and will register with fans all across the country.
And not just fans of the ponies. This was a big win for the NYRA.
The unanimous decision by all three stewards at Belmont Park was a no-brainer. Nasal strips can greatly enhance not only a horse’s athletic ability, but the health and welfare of the animals in what is a testing sport. To enhance a horse’s ability to compete at a high level while aiding their ability to breathe was a long overdue decision. This wasn’t just a competition issue, it was also an issue of health and welfare of the animals.
But the pressure put on the NYRA by California Chrome’s owners and trainers came at a time when the sport desperately needs a winner in a big way. The story of California Chrome, whose mother was purchased for a measly $8,000, has taken the nation by storm. To deny the country and the sporting world a chance at history with this horse over nasal strips would have been NYRA cutting off its own nose to support a nonsensical stance.
Instead, the stewards did the right thing. Now, California Chrome trots towards history.
There hasn’t been a Triple Crown winner in American racing since Affirmed in 1978. Since then, 12 horses have come to Belmont Park having taken both the Derby and the Preakness. And 12 horses have walked away, for a variety of reasons, without a win.
The sport desperately needs a breath of fresh air, the kind that a Triple Crown winner with the charisma and wonderful back story of California Chrome. While the Stakes on June 7 will likely draw a huge crowd to the fabled racing grounds in Elmont, the sport has fallen on hard times. It needs more than another one-off big draw that will temporarily bring in revenue and make for a good press release. The sport needs fans these days. And nothing but a Triple Crown winner racing at Belmont Park can do that on a local and a national level.
The genteel nature of racing doesn’t seem to jive with the pace of today’s modern sports world, where sports like MMA and the big hits of the NFL dominate the coverage of highlight shows. People want six steps to the basket and a spectacular dunk, a crushing hit along the glass in hockey. The slow, mosey pace of horse racing just isn’t in the DNA of the 21st century sports fan. The sport just isn’t on the radar of Joe Six-Pack.
But a win by California Chrome can change that, and that is what the stewards got right with their Monday decision. They didn’t just vote to give all horses at NYRA tracks a chance to use nasal strips. They voted to give horse racing the potential for a new lease on life.
A Triple Crown winner would provide unparalleled interest in the sport. For the next two-and-a-half weeks, not just the New York City media but the national cameras will be at Belmont Park to talk about and film this horse. It is the kind of exposure that brings new fans in along with the media attention and speculation. There’s nothing quite as big for the sport as the hype leading up to the Belmont Stakes, in the media capital of the world, if there is a Triple Crown contender coming to the city that year.
Except of course if that contender becomes a Triple Crown winner. And NYRA gave everyone who wants to see this sport which has limped over the past decade the chance to run on all fours again.
California Chrome, your date with history awaits you. Breathe easy sports fans.
Kristian R. Dyer covers the Jets for Metro New York and contributes to Yahoo! Sports as well as WFAN. He can be followed at @KristianRDyer
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