If there has been one minor controversy surrounding Triple Crown contender California Chrome, it can be summed up in two words: nasal strips.
The colt's trainer, Art Sherman, said the day after he won the Preakness on May 17 that the owners might not let him run Saturday in the Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the coveted Triple Crown, unless New York officials let him wear a nasal strip.
Until Belmont Park's three stewards unanimously agreed on May 19 to allow their use, New York was the only state that did not permit them in thoroughbred racing.
The Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner is 6-for-6 since Dec. 22, when he first wore a nasal strip, a 3-inch adhesive strip that fits on the horse's nose. He was 2-for-6 before that.
But on Friday, Alan Sherman, Art's son and assistant trainer, was less definitive about the importance of the strips.
"I really don't know if it helps," Sherman said at a news conference at Belmont Park in Elmont. He said it was owners Steve Coburn and Perry Martin's idea to use the strips, which some studies have shown help a horse breathe more easily and reduce bleeding in the lungs.
California Chrome on Saturday would become only the 12th horse to win the Triple Crown if he is victorious in the Belmont.
And when asked if they would have withdrawn the colt from the Belmont if the stewards had not agreed, the assistant trainer demurred. "I don't know about that," he said.
Experts are not unanimous about the benefits of nasal strips, developed by two veterinarians in the mid-1990s when they noticed their use by human athletes. But experts do agree that they pose no danger and aren't "performance-enhancing" -- that is, unlike some drugs, they do not make a horse run faster than it is naturally able.
NY stamp of approval
Dr. Scott Palmer, New York State Gaming Commission's equine medical director, said in a statement when it was announced that New York would allow their use: "Equine nasal strips do not enhance equine performance nor do they pose a risk to equine health or safety and as such do not need to be regulated."
He compared their use to "tongue-ties," the practice of tying cloth strips over a horse's tongue to keep it from putting the tongue over the bit and to help prevent displacement of the soft palate, which could block airflow.
"I think he put it very nicely," Dr. Jose Garcia-Lopez, director of equine sports medicine at Tufts University's Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, said of Palmer's statement. "Personally, I don't think there should have been much of a controversy."
Rose Nolen-Walston, an expert in pulmonary function at University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, agreed.
"The data show a small but consistent effect and the risk is nothing," she said. But when asked whether she would use them on her own horses, she hesitated. "I am an evidence-based person and the evidence is pretty slight. On the other hand, they cost $10."
Lisa Fortier, a surgeon at the newly reopened Cornell Ruffian Equine Specialists, across the street from Belmont Park's backstretch, said their use can fall within that realm of near-superstition of many athletes trying to improve performance by the tiniest margin. "They're safe," she said. "Whether or not they are effective can be debated."
One of the co-inventors of Flair nasal strips, veterinarian James Chiapetta, said the strips help prevent collapse of a horse's nasal passages when it inhales during heavy exercise. This in turn helps prevent negative pressure within the lung, he said, which could cause capillaries in the lungs to rupture. This is believed to be one of the causes of exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage (EIPH), which can lead to bleeding through the nose.
The company cites eight, mostly small clinical studies on its website, all but one of which show a benefit in their use. Most of the studies found that the horses had to work less hard to breath and saw a reduction in EIPH. Several studies compared the strips to the diuretic furosemide, or Lasix -- used to reduce EIPH and itself a controversial practice that some argue actually enhances a horse's performance.
Two of the studies found that Lasix was more effective than nasal strips, while one found they were about the same. Another study of 400 horses at a Florida track that wore nasal strips found they had a 3.4 higher win percentage compared with those that didn't wear them.
All of which is a no-brainer to New York trainer Gary Contessa, who said he began using the strips on his horses as soon as New York legalized them. "If this helps 1 percent -- who knows? It definitely doesn't hurt," he said. "I'm going to use anything that will give my horses unimpeded breathing."
But Richard Violette, president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association and trainer of Samraat, who is running against California Chrome in the Belmont, said he had tried them on a number of horses.
"Frankly, they didn't seem to make a whole lot of difference," he said.