The thorns poking at California Chrome’s Triple Crown bid got a little sharper on Sunday morning.
Less than 12 hours after the three-year-old colt was near-dominant in adding the Preakness Stakes to his Kentucky Derby triumph, an unexpected challenge surfaced and one that had the champ’s trainer threatening to pass on the Belmont Stakes.
At issue is a piece of equipment California Chrome has used throughout his six-race winning streak, including the pair that have put him on the threshold of becoming the 12th Triple Crown winner in thoroughbred racing’s history.
Like many human athletes, the speedy chestnut has been using a nasal strip to help his breathing and get more air to the lungs which has helped fuel the impressive horsepower. But in the past, officials at Belmont Park have banned horses from using the strips out of concern that they could be performance-enhancing.
The prospect of racing without it in the gruelling 1 1/2-mile Belmont clearly didn’t sit well with trainer Art Sherman, the 77-year-old small-time horseman who has hit it big this spring with his Derby-Preakness winner.
“All over the country they let you wear them, why would New York not?” Sherman said outside his barn at Pimlico Racecourse where California Chrome had recovered nicely from his impressive Preakness win the previous evening.
“We might have a little controversy here. It might be an issue.”
We’re betting that by Belmont time it won’t be and that California Chrome and will run with or without nasal strips. But Sherman’s comments will make for an interesting decision by the head steward at Belmont Park, who will ultimately make the call.
By later in the day, the New York State Gaming Commission, which oversees racing in the state, said nasal strips are not illegal but are up to the discretion of track stewards.
“If a request to use nasal strips is made, the decision on whether to permit them or not will be fully evaluated and determined by the stewards,” the Commission said in a release.
Ultimately, it may come down to which side blinks first, but rest assured the New York Racing Association, which owns Belmont Park and runs the Belmont Stakes, will do everything it can to have California Chrome on the track for the June 7 conclusion to the Triple Crown.
The winner had barely crossed the finish line at the Preakness and NYRA had already released a striking poster hyping the Belmont with the catchy “Go Big and Go Chrome,” billing. Racing isn’t exactly thriving these days and a Crown bid guarantees a big house as the Preakness record crowd on Saturday will attest.
From Sherman’s perspective, the last thing he wants to do is change the game for his colt going into the longest race of the series facing what may be his toughest competition. The trainer acknowledged as much on Sunday, suggesting the nasal strips have been a help during his impressive win streak.
“I think it opens up his air passage and gives him that little extra oomph that he needs, especially when he’s going a mile and a half,” Sherman said. “Any time you have a good air passage, that means a lot for these thoroughbreds.”
Assuming the air clears — literally and figuratively — California Chrome’s bigger hurdle is more likely to come from what is shaping up as a tough Belmont in terms of opposition. The preliminary list of horses pointing to the race includes the second through fifth place finishers in the Derby, all of which passed on the Preakness.
The issue of horses resting up to take down a Triple Crown candidate has made the task even tougher in recent years and has prompted some to call for a change in the format to the historic series. California Chrome’s co-owner, Steve Coburn, called for it after his win on Saturday and Sherman re-iterated the concerns the following morning.
“To me, if you’re going to the Triple Crown, go for the Triple Crown,” Sherman said. “Don’t pick your spots. If you are a good enough horse to do it, let’s go. Make it fair where you don’t have to pick and choose your spots.”
Racing purists scoff at the idea, suggesting messing with the format is to mess with history. Sherman, meanwhile, just wants what he feels to be a fair shot at making history.
SHERMAN HAS A ‘GOOD FEELING’
With three weeks to hype California Chrome’s Triple Crown bid, the opinions will come from all corners.
From the racing experts and hardcore handicappers to the casual sports fan, the question will be universal: Can he do it?
History has shown that finishing off the Triple Crown is one of the toughest tasks in all of sport. Since Affirmed last swept the series in 1978, 11 horses have won the Derby and Preakness, only to be denied at the Belmont. A 12th, I’ll Have Another, was scratched the day before the 2012 Belmont due to injury.
The man who knows California Chrome the most isn’t about to offer a guarantee — why tempt the racing gods? — but he does like his horse’s chances.
“I have a good feeling about it,” trainer Art Sherman said on Sunday. “After watching him run (on Saturday) with two weeks (between the Derby and Preakness) and showing the courage he had … I don’t care how many fresh shooters they have — he’s the real McCoy.”