California Chrome is 1 ½ miles away from possibly being the first Triple Crown Winner since Affirmed won it in 1978. The 38 years since Affirmed won the Triple Crown has seen 11 horses who have won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness fall short on the longer distance. Along with the real drama of “will he or won’t he?” was the secondary drama involving a small piece of tape affixed to his nose.
Called a Flair Nasal Strip and similar to the small strip snorers wear, this small strip of tape has been all over the news. New York’s Racing Association Stewards had previously deemed nasal strips illegal, and had said that they would not permit California Chrome from running with one. The owners of California Chrome, knowing the value that their horse provided the race, announced that California Chrome would pull out of the race if not permitted to wear his nasal strip. New York racing officials quickly caved.
So what does this nasal strip do? According to Flair’s website the strips allow the nostrils to remain open during intense exercise, reducing stress to the lungs and fatigue. Horses, unlike people and dogs cannot breathe through their mouths. When horses begin to breathe hard they can create negative pressures on their lungs which leads to the bursting of small capillaries in the lungs. This leads to a very common phenomenon in horses called “bleeding”.
Exercise induced pulmonary hemmorhage (EIPH) is considered to be very common in racing thoroughbreds. Most often the blood can only be seen through endoscopy, rarely will it be seen in the nostrils. In studies using endoscopy on thoroughbreds in training, between 75-100% had evidence of EIPH.
Most horses with EIPH or suspected EIPH are treated with a drug called furosemide (one of the brand names of furosemide is Lasix, which is why horses are said to be running on Lasix, earning a capital L by their name on racing forms). Furosemide is a diuretic that pulls water out the blood and lowers blood pressure (it is commonly used in people and pets with congestive heart failure).
In a study comparing the effectiveness of strips versus furosemide, researchers found that both provided some benefit to the control horses in the study. Furosemide in addition to nasal strips provided no additional benefit.
Whether or not EIPH has any effect on performance remains unanswered. Additionally, some researchers question the effect of furosemide on horses racing at all.
Right now, the contentious strip that California Chrome wears may or may not have any effect on a problem that may or may not have any effect on performance. In other words, it may be doing nothing to treat a problem that does not exist. Whatever the case, it is unlikely that California Chrome, if he wins on Saturday, can attribute any aspect of his success to a little piece of tape on his nose.