Nations: Racing fans can breathe easy

Horse racing fans can collectively breathe easy — California Chrome will indeed make a bid to complete the Triple Crown.

The California-bred 3-year-old chestnut colt will breathe easier, too, after Belmont Park track stewards representing the New York State Gaming Commission, the New York Racing Association and the Jockeys Club ruled that the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner can indeed wear his nasal strip to race.

That decision was reached remarkably quickly, but industry standards. But then, was there ever really any doubt that Belmont would risk losing a Triple Crown contender — not to mention the millions in betting revenue that comes with it. Over a strip of plastic? Not a chance.

Then again … in 2012, when I’ll Have Another pulled off the same feat by winning the first two legs of the Triple Crown, officials from Belmont and the NYRA quietly informed his handlers that no nasal strip would be permitted that year. That never amounted to anything, as I’ll Have Another never made that bid since he was withdrawn on the eve of the Belmont due to a sore tendon that proved career-ending.

Still, you have to figure California Chrome’s 77-year-old trainer Art Sherman remembered that flap when he suggested on Sunday that his prized colt might just skip the Belmont if his nasal needs weren’t met.

Snoring in the barn jokes aside, New York needed a prod to get with the times on this issue. The nasal strips are perfectly acceptable in California Chrome’s native state. It’s fine in Kentucky and Maryland, too. And now New York is on board — what a relief, right?

This isn’t to suggest that California Chrome’s task will be much easier in the Belmont Stakes on June 7 — a bit more comfortable, maybe, but the challenge amounts to much more than a little extra air circulating through the colt’s snoot. At a mile and a half, the Belmont is the longest of the three Triple Crown races and has proven the downfall of many a would-be legend.

California Chrome must wait three weeks to for that final test, and conditioners must somehow stretch out his peak form for that much longer. When he arrives in Elmont, New York, California Chrome will face a field of well-rested rivals with every incentive to derail his bid. The common wisdom says that thoroughbred racing is desperate for another Triple Crown winner, but don’t think for a second California Chrome and his jockey Victor Espinoza will get any special considerations on the race track. Winning a Triple Crown race — any of them — is a financial windfall no horsemen would sacrifice to the opportunity to witness horse racing history.

It does seem like ancient history, the last time a horse pulled off a Triple Crown. That was back in 1978, when Affirmed and jockey Steve Cauthen edged fierce rival Alydar and jockey Jorge Velasquez in one final time in the Belmont to cap one of the truly great rivalries in the sports history.

Affirmed proved a worthy champion, as did the other 10 horses who accomplished the Triple Crown before him — Sir Barton (1919), Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1935), War Admiral (1937), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946), Citation (1948), Virginia-bred Secretariat (1973) and Seattle Slew (1977).

A record crowd of 123,469 turned out to see if California Chrome had what it took in the 139th Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, and the overwhelming 1-2 favorite delighted the crowd with a race perhaps even more impressive than his Kentucky Derby triumph two weeks earlier at Churchill Downs. In the Derby, California Chrome turned in a pedestrian winning time as Espinoza eased him a bit down the stretch. At Pimlico, California Chrome chased down the early speed of longshots Pablo Del Monte and Ria Antonia, then turned back successive challenges from his real rivals Social Inclusion and Ride On Curlin to win by 1 ½ length with a very fast time of 1:54.84 over the 1 3/16-mile distance.

Racing fans left Pimlico believing they had just witnessed the next Triple Crown winner — a feeling shared by crowds at 11 other Belmont Stakes since Affirmed accomplished the feat. California Chrome is the 12th horse to win the first two legs since Affirmed in 1978, and the West Coast favorite aims to pass all those others and join that elite Triple Crown fraternity.

The nasal strip likely won’t make much of a difference — there is no evidence it has any performance enhancing effect. California Chrome seems to prefer it, though, as evidenced by his winning all six starts since adopting the strip. It’s reassuring to know that when California Chrome attempts to complete his Triple Crown next month, he’ll be at his best and not subject to a dubious technicality. That’s how it should be.

Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or jnations@nvdaily.com>