California Chrome, his nose pointed toward possible Triple Crown glory in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, will do so with the bridge of that nose covered by an adhesive strip that retails for around $10.
The nasal strip, merely a larger version of what humans wear to prevent snoring, in recent weeks has become nothing to sneeze at, especially in an industry eager to produce a Triple Crown champ for the first time since Affirmed galloped to glory in 1978. It’s a small investment in a typical trainer’s tack room full of the conventional, time-tested equipment designed to help jockeys make their horses run better, straighter, and faster.
“We win by inches, necks, and noses,’’ noted veteran trainer Jay Bernardini, ferreting about his tack room at Suffolk Downs one morning last week to show a visitor the conventional headgear of his trade. “What people don’t realize is, an inch is thousands of dollars sometimes — and those big races, it’s millions of dollars.
“So it is the trainer’s job to try to find that extra inch.’’
The owners and trainer of California Chrome, with stellar wins at the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, can’t state with certainty that the 3-inch-wide nasal strip is essential to success or even improves performance.
Only the horse can truly say, and when the athlete is unable to talk, only results are authorized to speak. California Chrome is 6 for 6 since the horse started to use “the patch’’ on Dec. 22, after winning only twice in six previous starts.
Long before the horse’s string of victories, New York racing officials had a ban on nasal strips. But when California Chrome’s trainer, Art Sherman, found out about it, he threatened not to run in the Belmont Stakes. A day later, the ban was lifted.
“And if he wins the Triple Crown, here’s what will happen,” mused longtime jockey David Amiss. “Every horse in the country will wear one for the next 90 days. And then it will all just fade away.’’
Meanwhile, the other, more conventional headgear of the trade, utilized in the industry for nearly as long as saddle and stirrups, once again will be on display Saturday as California Chrome attempts to become the sport’s 12th Triple Crown winner.
Before the Flair (that’s the brand name) nasal strip captured most of the headlines in recent weeks, the devices more commonly employed around a racehorse’s head included such mundane items as bridles, bits, and blinkers, along with shadow rolls, tongue ties, and the occasional set of earplugs.
None of those carries the trendiness or tipster’s intrigue of the pyramid-shaped nasal strip, but most of those devices have been around, since Sir Barton was the first to pull off the Triple Crown in 1919.
A bit of control
“The whole idea behind equipment, whatever you’re using, is to get horses to focus,’’ said Bernardini. “In other words, to get your horse to run to the best of its ability. Sometimes the key is what bit you use. Sometimes it’s the blinkers. Maybe it’s the nasal strip. Who knows? Maybe it’s all of that.
“But the idea behind all of it is to get the horse to focus its energy. Do that, and you make money.’’
The essential piece of equipment, according to Bernardini, is the bit, a piece of steel forged in various shapes and sizes that fits directly into the horse’s mouth. The bit, attached to the bridle, ultimately dictates the jockey’s ability to direct the horse when he or she pulls on the reins.
Trainer and jockey work in tandem to figure out the best bit, in terms of shape, comfort, and control. A horse that requires little guidance might be fitted with a conservative bit (often D-shaped at each side of the mouth). A less-focused horse will require a more aggressive bit.
“When they get mad, you know it,’’ said Bernardini. “When they’re afraid, you know it.
“You learn different things about them. You learn their personalities. And it’s good to know. Because they are stronger than we are. We have all these different devices and mechanisms that we lead them with and use them to regain control. But ultimately, you want to outthink them and gain control.’’
“In 25-30 years of riding,’’ added Amiss, “I’ve probably seen a total of two horses with a bitless bridle. The bit by far gives you the most control. It’s steering and braking. If I have no bit, I have no control.’’
Many horses, including California Chrome, race in blinkers, which also vary significantly in size and shape from horse to horse. Blinkers, typically made of plastic, are usually crescent-shaped, and are set in place behind each of the horse’s eyes. They minimize the horse’s peripheral vision, ostensibly to keep it from being distracted by other horses in the field or anything outside the rails or in the grandstand.
Blinkers can be minimal in width, for horses that can stay focused easily on what’s in front of them, or they may be shaped to cover more of the field of vision. Exaggerated, or more aggressive, blinkers will sometimes protrude forward from the horse’s head. Often, larger-cupped blinkers also contain a small hole in the center, allowing the horse the slightest glance of a horse on either side.
“Really great horses, I mean great horses, are few and far between,’’ said Amiss. “There are thousands of horses born every year, and so few truly great. So when you have one like [California Chrome] looks, they’ll change nothing — right down to the brand of shavings in the stall.
“Won’t change a thing.’’
Shadows and tongues
Another common headpiece device is the shadow roll, an oft-furry sleeve of material placed horizontally across the bridle’s noseband. Shadows often fluster horses, leading them to halt or jump. The shadow roll, placed approximately halfway between the horse’s eyes and nostrils, prevents it from seeing shadows cast across the track that are within close range.
“Their basic reaction is to jump,’’ said Bernardini. “It’s either they hesitate and don’t go, or they jump. Or veer left or right. They won’t run into something they can’t see.’’
The shadow roll, said Amiss, is also effective in preventing dirt from being kicked into the horse’s eyes.
“You’re going 40 miles an hour out there, and it’s getting kicked back at you at 40 miles an hour,’’ said Amiss, who is Suffolk’s top-earning jockey this season. “It’s like you’re being sandblasted. Some horses love it, they’re like, ‘OK, bring it on!’ Bust most of them don’t.’’
To ensure a free flow of oxygen, said Bernardini, he ties down most of his horses’ tongues, also an age-old practice employed widely throughout the industry. A simple band of nylon or cotton material is placed over the horse’s tongue, depressing it to the lower mouth when the material is knotted under the horse’s head.
“It keeps the tongue out of the equation,’’ said Bernardini, who has the most wins among Suffolk trainers. “It keeps them from disrupting their breathing.’’
“I rode 15 horses last week,’’ added Amiss, “and 13 of them had their tongues tied. As a rider, I’m not really a fan of them. I don’t think they’re as beneficial as others believe, but . . .’’
Much less common is the use of earplugs, which, not unlike the nasal strip this year, became a cause celebre in 1984 when Gate Dancer wore them in winning the Preakness. Bernardini said his horses are rarely fitted with the plugs, which can be as simple as cotton balls stuffed into the horse’s ear canal. Gate Dancer’s plugs were more elaborate, attached to the blinkers.
“Gate Dancer had a hood for those plugs,’’ Bernardini recalled. “They were built into a piece of cloth that covered both of the horse’s ears, you know, like a hoodie. Kind of like Batman.’’
California Chrome’s fashion statement will be the humble nasal strip, which delivers no medication. It simply sticks to the nose, in Band-Aid fashion, the pressure, some believe, expanding the nasal cavity for easier breathing.
The package for the equine Flair strip says it also reduces lung stress and bleeding, as well as fatigue, and that it helps the horse conserve energy and recover more quickly.
It promises nothing of winning millions, a visitor to Bernardini’s place offered sardonically.
“No, it doesn’t,’’ he said. “But it might work for them.’’
Could it be that the nasal strip, if offering no direct enhancement to a horse’s performance, provides the horse with a psychological edge? Such a case is often made for human athletes, especially sprinters and long-distance runners who use nasal strips during competition.
Dr. Richard Sheehan Jr., a private practice veterinarian at Suffolk Downs for the last 26 years, pondered such a possibility.
“What would I say to that?’’ said Sheehan, a big smile crinkling his own nose. “I think you’re giving horses way too much credit. That’s just my candid opinion. Now, it might give the trainer a psychological edge, but that’s a different story.’’