California Chrome can wear nasal strip at Belmont, but sport suffers
Understand this: The damage has already been done. Nasalgate lasted scarcely 24 hours before disappearing somewhere into horse racing's history of the bizarre, alongside the little safety pin that allegedly ruined Spectacular Bid's Belmont in 1979 and prevented a three-year run on the Triple Crown. New York Racing Association stewards have informed California Chrome trainer Art Sherman that the horse will be allowed to wear his nasal strip when he attempts to win horse racing's Triple Crown on June 7 in the Belmont Stakes.
Lordy. What a relief. Of course, this was never in doubt. It made for a day's worth of salacious teases -- California Chrome could skip Belmont over nasal strip flap! was screamed with the urgency of Headless Body Found in Topless Bar. Those stories, while perfectly cute, served primarily to bury the story of Chrome and jockey Victor Espinoza's transcendent performance in Saturday's Preakness. There was no way, on a very simple, economic level, that NYRA officials were going to turn away from tens of millions in revenue (the potential betting handle on a Triple Crown Saturday) over a piece of equipment that's allowed in every other racing jurisdiction and is available to every other horse in the field. (In fact, Monday's ruling allows that all horses racing in New York, going forward, will be allowed to use nasal strips. This comes 15 years after a temporary stay on their use by then-NYRA President Terry Meyocks in 1999. Even Meyocks, who left NYRA in 2004, said Sunday, "They were just new then. We didn't know what their effect would be. But come on. It's been 15 years. They've had three presidents since me.'')
Secondarily (definitely secondarily), even with racing's recent struggles with self-promotion, there was also no way that three NYRA stewards were going to be allowed to reduce NBC's June 7 television blockbuster to a meaningless afternoon of horse racing. It was just never in the realm of possibility. California Chrome was going to run in the Belmont, and he was going to run with his nasal strips. (Although, you had to love the way Sherman, Chrome's 77-year-old trainer, who has been portrayed as the cuddly smurf throughout Chrome's ride, deftly held NYRA's feet to the fire Sunday morning at Pimlico, playing the innocent grandfather trainer and suggesting that maybe Chrome's owners wouldn't even run him in the Belmont without the nasal strip. Art Sherman is a sweet, engaging man, but he has also spent more than six decades in the swill of rumor and backstabbing that is the racetrack. He knows how to play every game in the books. He woke up before dawn and put the screws to NYRA, ensuring a swift resolution to a decade-and-a-half-old issue).
But to say all is well? No, all is not well. This particular genie is not going back into the bottle. In 24 hours, racing has infused a fantastic narrative with a giant punch line. When the sports world awakened Sunday morning, it was in possession of this tale about a colt who was the product of $10,000 investment by two regular guys (well, actually neither Steve Coburn nor Perry Martin is very regular, but they're more regular than most horse owners, at least in terms of Islands/Ferraris owned; or at least they were at the start of this ride). And Sherman, who -- repeat after me -- slept in a railway cattle car next to Swaps en route to the 1955 Kentucky Derby, as a 17-year-old stable boy. And the horse's roots, a breeding farm among brown, drought-ravaged hillsides in central California. (He was the first California-bred to win the Derby in 52 years, but as Coburn likes to say, "He doesn't know where he was born. And Secretariat was born in Virginia. So there is that.") It's a narrative full of dreams -- waking dreams and even supposed sleeping dreams, of the sort that can make a struggling sport accessible to the public.
It's still all of that. But now it's also a joke about a snoring horse, delivered in a relentless Twitter onslaught during those 24 hours of Nasalgate and overwhelming the central story. Even The New York Times climbed on board Monday morning:
And if this were a football player with, I don't, know a unicorn horn, and he needed to play in the NFL regular season with a hole drilled in the middle of his helmet, then it would all be in good, harmless fun because the NFL is a bulletproof machine that has survived and prospered despite the possibility that repeated participation damages the participants' brains forever. But horse racing isn't football. Horse racing is a sport practiced in equal parts by humans and animals, and it began a relentless slide from public popularity a few minutes after Affirmed crossed the finish line in the 1978 Belmont as the Triple Crown winner.
It's a sport that lends itself to denigration from outsiders. Just watch: In the next three weeks, some genius with a laptop is going to write a story "interviewing'' California Chrome. The talking horse column is a staple in these situations. Hey big fella, lookin' forward to the breeding shed? OK, fine. There's little racing can do about that. But now the sport has lain open its dysfunctionality for all to see, and on a topic that's a massive snark target. All because New York -- not Arkansas -- couldn't see its way clear to a simple equipment ruling in 15 years.
Beyond the jokes will come some suggestion that Chrome is advantaged by this nasal strip. Well, he is. Just like he's advantaged by the special shoes that Sherman has made for him by his blacksmith. Just like he's advantaged by the blinkers he wears when he's racing. It's true that Chrome won only two of his first six races through November 2013. Then at the suggestion of Martin, Sherman fitted him with the nasal strip. He's won six consecutive races since, including the Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
Something else happened in those six races; Sherman switched riders from journeyman Alberto Delgado to Espinoza. In those first six races, Delgado repeatedly got Chrome in trouble. Espinoza, above all, has used Chrome's athletic ability (a quick, nimble acceleration and a willingness to use it multiple times in the same race) to stay in the clear and let Chrome run. So the horse is 6-0 with the strip and 6-0 with Espinoza. It's insane to think that the former is more important than the latter. Or that it's even close. (Chrome was the only horse in the Derby and Belmont to run with a nasal strip; if it was a such a speed-inducer, perhaps more would use it?)
It's hard enough to win the Belmont Stakes under any circumstances. For 35 years, it's proven impossible to win after winning the Derby and Preakness, a drought that sits -- wrongly -- on racing's shoulders like an anvil. Sherman and his son, Alan (who does much of the everyday work on Chrome), Coburn, Martin and Espinoza now face the longest three weeks of their lives. They have to milk three more weeks of peak out of a horse that is surely growing fatigued. They have to tell their fabulous story so many more times that is doesn't even feel fabulous to them. On the first Saturday in June, Chrome has to beat a bunch of horses that have been resting since the Derby, and Espinoza has to beat a bunch of jockeys who don't want to get beat for the Triple Crown.
But it's a great story and great drama. And now it lives alongside a joke.