Crank up the hype machine
Back from vacation, part of which was spent in Baltimore, where I was an early scratch as a Pimlico patron on Friday and a late scratch as a Preakness bettor on Saturday.
On Friday, a steel fencepost drew a white line down the side of my black Civic while I was trying to squeeze my way out of somebody’s backyard through a hole reminiscent of what Ginger Punch faced in the 2008 Go for Wand.
On Saturday, I scratched myself by tossing a stack of dead tickets in the trash a half-hour before post time for the big race. Oh, yeah, somewhere in that stack was $67 worth of early Preakness wagers, including what turned out to be $47 in winnings.
Pro tip: Don’t do that.
Unburdened of financial involvement, I rooted for California Chrome from the apron at the eighth pole, as did most of the crowd of 120,000. Now we’ve got a Triple Crown on the line, one of the most delicious prospects in sports, especially these days, when it’s been over three decades since the last successful one.
Then . . . Nasalpocalypse.
There was much gnashing of teeth when trainer Art Sherman was alerted to the fact that the New York Racing Association doesn’t allow nasal strips on horses, which California Chrome had worn for his last six races, all wins.
This is just a dumb rule in the first place.
The nasal strip is designed to keep a horse’s nostrils open, allowing free flow of air, thus putting less pressure on the lungs and subsequently less pressure on the capillaries in the lungs. Those tiny blood vessels tend to burst to varying degrees during a state of exertion, which leads to pulmonary bleeding.
The strip is a piece of equipment to help a horse run to his potential. Is it performance-enhancing? Why, yes, it is, insofar as some horses may race better with them.
But “performance-enhancing” doesn’t have to be a dirty word, at least not when you’re talking about a piece of tape and not a drug that masks injury or acts as a stimulant.
Nobody thought much about this rule until I’ll Have Another, a nasal-strip user, was in line for the 2012 Triple Crown.
The New York Racing Association stewards told trainer Doug O’Neill he couldn’t use it in the Belmont Stakes, O’Neill said OK, and the issue became moot when I’ll Have Another was scratched the day before the race with an injury and retired, anyway.
The three stewards at NYRA tracks — one assigned by NYRA itself, one by the state Gaming Commission and one by The Jockey Club — conveniently had a newly appointed equine medical director to fall back on this time.
After Sherman raised doubt that California Chrome’s owners would run in the Belmont without the nasal strip, Dr. Scott Palmer told the stewards to reverse the ban entirely, and they complied. And thus ended the breathless headlines about a Triple Crown bid being spoiled before the Belmont was even run.
Like there was ever a chance in hell that NYRA and the Gaming Commission weren’t going to accommodate the California Chrome camp. NYRA already had been anticipating a windfall of attendance and handle since director of racing Martin Panza shifted the Met Mile and two other Grade I stakes to Belmont Weekend.
But there is no windfall like a Triple Crown windfall.
Don’t get me wrong, the nasal-strip ban was a lousy rule and needed to go, but NYRA comes across like hypocrites when they bend over backward to change it for California Chrome, but took a hard line against I’ll Have Another.
It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the trainers and owners of this year’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner are — rightfully — beloved for their backstory, while O’Neill is widely regarded as something of a scoundrel for his history of drug investigations.
The unintended positive side effect of the Nasalpocalypse is that the Belmont in particular and racing in general are enjoying more mainstream media attention than they would have otherwise.
Silly issue or not, they were talking about it on “Around the Horn,” “Pardon the Interruption,” CNN and the “CBS Evening News,” as far as my unofficial tally goes.
Pretty sure people aren’t going to tune out the Belmont just because Michael Wilbon was screaming “Fraudulent!” on PTI, claiming that they massaged a rule just to produce a Triple Crown and keep the sport relevant.
A Chrome Crown isn’t going to cure horse racing’s ills and diminishing popularity, but that’s a subject for a later column.
And last I checked, the horse still has to win the thing, right?