Scott Michaux

Sports columnist for The Augusta Chronicle. | ScottMichaux.com

New York racing stewards made right call on California Chrome's nasal strips

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There will be no summer squabble this year on the Triple Crown circuit.

New York’s racing stewards made the prudent call this week for the Belmont Stakes, opting to end its prohibition on equine nasal strips to make room for a historic opportunity.

California Chrome, the winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, might not have made a run to end a 36-year drought on Triple Crown winners if he hadn’t been allowed to use the nasal strips his handlers believe have helped him win six consecutive races.

Cot Campbell, whose horse Palace Malice won last year’s Belmont Stakes for Aiken’s Dogwood Stable, thinks the no-strip lift was a no-brainer.

“They have relented,” Campbell said of New York racing officials. “Of course it would have been insane not to.”

While the nasal strip manufacturer contends that it allows horses to use less energy and avoid bleeding, Campbell agrees with New York’s stewards who say there is no evidence the strips offer any competitive or physical advantage at all.

“It doesn’t do a damn bit of good anyway,” Campbell said. “Psychologically, those people feel like it does. And the horse sure as hell runs well with it.”

Campbell is an apt authority on the vagaries of racing rulings as this situation recalled to mind a similar scenario 24 years ago that deprived racing of a high-stakes rivalry showdown and potentially cost Dogwood Stable $1 million.

Prior to the 1990 Belmont Stakes, the first two legs of the Triple Crown series had been split between Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled and Preakness winner Summer Squall, owned by Dogwood. Both horses ran using the drug Lasix to curb nasal bleeding.

Lasix, however, was banned from racing in New York, and the stewards had no intention of relenting. Despite a $1 million bonus up for grabs for the top performer that ran every leg of the Triple Crown series, Campbell elected not to run Summer Squall.

Unbridled ran without Lasix, finishing fourth and pocketing the bonus.

“It was not legal and that’s why we discarded any plans to run in the Belmont and threw away any possibility of the million dollar bonus,” Campbell said. “We were tied with Unbridled. We decided not to run and he did and got the dough.”

Though Campbell still teases Unbridled’s owners and trainer that Dogwood deserved a 10-percent commission on the bonus it conceded, the decision at the time was disappointing.

“It was very difficult but it was the right thing for the horse,” Campbell said. “He’d had an active campaign and to subject him to going a mile-and-a-half without Lasix, which he badly needed because he did tend to bleed, it was clear cut. I remember I said that the decision was etched in stone and Carl Nafzger, who trained Unbridled, said, ‘Yeah, but that’s why they make chisels.’ He was wrong and I did stick to the decision and that was that.”

The decision to pull Summer Squall had a significant impact on the Belmont Stakes. Without the headliner showdown of the two top names, the gate was small and the national interest diminished.

“A helluva lot,” Campbell said. “It was a great rubber match. We had a rivalry going with Unbridled. We ended up facing him six times and beat him four times. I wanted to beat him in the Belmont as we’d done in the Preakness after he beat us in the Derby. But I had the consolation of having won the Preakness and it was not the end of the world.”

The 1990 Triple Crown series brought Lasix to the forefront in racing just three years after Alysheba’s Triple Crown bid faded at Belmont with the horse running for the first time without the drug and finishing fourth. It was six more years before the drug was first allowed in the Belmont. Campbell said New York has always been slower to embrace emerging trends that other states are quicker to adopt.

“I think New York is vigilant about keeping things tidy and clean and having rules that make it not a place where you can take advantage of things,” Campbell said. “I think they tend to be rigid about medication and that sort of thing moreso than other states. It was a hard-and-fast rule (in 1990). No way in the world they would have changed it and it was never presented to them to change. We just accepted that that was the rule in the state of New York and therefore unfortunate for us.”

Belmont was less willing to adapt two years ago when I’ll Have Another won the first two legs of the Triple Crown using the same nasal strips that California Chrome uses. That decision might have had more to do with the horse’s trainer, Doug O’Neill, than the horse or the nasal strip.

“O’Neill’s reputation was rather untidy and he’d had a lot of suspensions,” Campbell said. “I think New York was very paranoid about it and made sure O’Neill dotted every ‘i’ and crossed every ‘t’ when he came to New York. They said no horse in the Belmont is going to run with nasal strips, knowing that his horse did. They were very mindful of not giving him any advantage due to his reputation.”

The point became moot when I’ll Have Another was scratched before the race because of tendonitis.

This time, Belmont’s stewards wasted no time withdrawing objection to the nasal strips to clear any hurdles for California Chrome.

“They turned it over to the stewards and it did not take them long to figure out that we better back off this,” Campbell said. “In the first place, if the horse doesn’t run they’d lose about 40- to 50,000 people. So they quickly relented.”

Campbell isn’t bitter that the stewards refused to back off on his behalf 24 years ago even though Lasix later became commonplace. And he isn’t sure Summer Squall would have run anyway if the rules had been loosened.

“You could make a case that it was asking a lot to run him – Lasix or no Lasix – after what had been a very active spring campaign for him,” he said. “When the Lasix issue emerged there was no question we’d have to pass it up.”

Thankfully for racing, California Chrome won’t have to make that decision.


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