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The shame of 'Nasalgate'

5/22/2014

The hours following the Preakness should have been celebratory, filled with expectations and redolent of ancient greatness. With gems pocketed in Louisville and Baltimore, now two-thirds of the way there, California Chrome had put himself in position to become, with one more historic victory, the first horse in 36 years to sweep the famed Triple Crown. And then a nasal strip shattered the moment, like a rock hurled through a window.

Horse racing has a talent for turning even its best moments into embarrassments, but this was flagrantly stupid, even for this sport. This was doubly and profoundly embarrassing; this was proactively dumb.

Horse racing has a talent for turning even its best moments into embarrassments, but this was flagrantly stupid, even for this sport.

On Monday morning, instead of promulgating the great story of California Chrome's humble provenance or his "old school" trainer who'll soon be a great-grandfather or the marvelous symbiosis that exists between horse and jockey, the mainstream media were all over "Nasalgate," as it was called. CNN, Fox News, CBS Sports and a host of others reported that the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner might not race in the Belmont Stakes because of New York's ban on nasal strips.

The controversy was flapdoodle, of course. New York racing and NBC television had too much on the line to allow an innocuous piece of equipment that's used in every other racing jurisdiction in the country to scotch the party. The California Chrome connections had too much to gain to let themselves become discouraged or sidetracked by bureaucratic nonsense. But a casual observer probably wouldn't know that. Picture this casual fan, a guy whose interest and focus sidestep horse racing for all but a few days each year, and imagine him watching and hearing these reports Monday morning as he eats breakfast.

Wait, what was that? He's puzzled as he bites into a jelly-slathered biscuit and listens to breaking news emanating from his television. What was that on the news there, a nasal strip ban, are you kidding? Nasal strips banned in New York? "Hey, Martha," he calls into the bedroom, a few crumbs clinging to his lips, "ya better tell your Uncle Marvin, the one who snores like a sump pump, that he can't use his nasal strips when he goes to New York next month -- wait, wait, no, never mind, Martha, it's only horses that can't use nasal strips." Preparing a second biscuit, he thinks to himself: I didn't even know horses snore. Oh, just racehorses can't use 'em. But what? Oh, it's all about this California Chrome. He wore a nasal strip when he won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness -- wait, wait, are they saying he cheated? How could that help him run faster? "Hey, Martha, the next time ya go to the store, pick me up some of them nasal strips." Oh, wait, I get it, it's just that some rule says he can't wear the thing now, yeah, right, that makes a lot of sense -- the air's so pure and uncontaminated, why would anybody want a nasal strip in New York? But wait, wait, don't I see ballplayers wearing 'em all the time, and if you got a plugged-up honker why shouldn't you be able to wear one -- I mean, isn't this still a free country? But wait, are you telling me the rules in New York are different from the rules in them other places, or maybe the rules everywhere are different from the rules everywhere else, unique rules I guess, that's what this is about, yeah, unique rules, but if everybody has a unique set of rules, isn't that malarkey, or maybe anarchy's what I mean, or maybe both. Now, that's really a mess, that's embarrassing, that's really, really dumb.

And that's horse racing. The post-Preakness public relations fiasco exposed, for all to see, horse racing as dysfunctional. Every racing jurisdiction has its own set of rules, regulations and penalties. Acceptable levels for therapeutic medication can vary from one place to another. A positive test in one jurisdiction might not be a positive elsewhere. A violation that warrants a six-month suspension in Texas might get only two weeks in New York, and so it goes, chaotically.

The PR mess didn't endure, however. Or rather, to be more precise, one embarrassment yielded to another. The rule on which the ban was based requires the stewards to approve equipment. The NYRA stewards had not approved nasal strips.

After Art Sherman, California Chrome's trainer, asked for their sanction, the NYRA stewards quickly gave it. Explaining the decision, Scott Palmer, the medical director of the New York State Gaming Commission, said the nasal strips "do not enhance performance" or "pose a risk to equine health or safety."

But did nasal strips pose a risk to equine health two years ago? Did they enhance performance two years ago? Of course not. And yet two years ago, after winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, I'll Have Another was not going to be permitted to wear a nasal strip. Nasal strips were as benign then as they are now; they didn't enhance performance two years ago, and they don't enable a horse to run faster today. That's all clear, reasonable and logical. But two years ago, something trumped reason and logic. Just like California Chrome, I'll Have Another had worn the equipment in Kentucky and Maryland. As it turned out, of course, he didn't run in the Belmont because an injury before the race forced him to retire. But if he had raced, he would not have worn a nasal strip.

Would nasal strips even be approved today if Steve Asmussen or Doug O'Neill trained California Chrome?

His trainer, Doug O'Neill, didn't even ask for permission to use the equipment. He recently told the U-T San Diego newspaper that he was told in advance that I'll Have Another would not be allowed to wear a nasal strip.

So what changed from 2012 to 2014? What trumped reason and logic two years ago? Well, two years ago, you might recall, O'Neill was portrayed in the New York Times as having a "troubled record." And his record was troubling, as he admitted himself. O'Neill was generally portrayed as a representative of horse racing's problems. Sherman, on the other hand, generally has been viewed as a representative of horse racing's traditions and, most of all, as a recipient of fate's inexplicable kindness. He's one of the good guys.

Makes you wonder, doesn't it, whether the nasal strips would have been approved two years ago if his trainer was Art Sherman? Would nasal strips even be approved today if Steve Asmussen or Doug O'Neill trained California Chrome? The media are going to continue to label some guys good and others bad; everything's easier to understand when simplified and condensed into a Howard Hawks western, but are racing officials going to pass rules and regulations and are they going to hand out penalties based on media labels?

In April, in response to a controversy created by PETA and complemented by the Times, Ogden Mills Phipps, the chairman of The Jockey Club, said, "We certainly shouldn't need an animal rights organization or a major publication to identify bad actors or their bad deeds."

True enough. Aware that few things are as simple as the good guys fighting the bad guys, the horse racing industry doesn't rely on "a major publication" or on "an animal rights organization" to label its participants. But can the same be said of officials in New York? That's the final, lasting embarrassment.