The most famous pair of nostrils in the world belong to California Chrome, the American horse whose tilt at the coveted Triple Crown was temporarily in jeopardy over New York’s ban on nasal strips in racing.
New York racing authorities have since allowed the strips, allowing California Chrome to front up for the Belmont Stakes resplendent in his nasal accoutrement.
Do horses derive any benefit from the strips, which are designed to tape open the nostrils and keep them open? The answer, it would seem, is yes.
Researchers have found that equine nasal strips reduce lung damage. However, in the most sensitive question for the racing industry, there is a possibility they also may improve performance.
Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine researchers who tested the product say the focus should be firmly on the nasal strip’s health benefits and not on possible performance enhancement.
The university’s Howard Erickson, professor emeritus of anatomy and physiology, and David Poole, professor of kinesiology and anatomy and physiology, researched the Flair nasal strip used by California Chrome and found that it can help reduce lung damage in horses.
“I think the Flair nasal strip was beneficial for this horse, and … has been shown by our research to reduce exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage by approximately 50 percent,” Erickson said. “I think that is beneficial.”
Unlike humans, horses only breathe through their nose.
Poole said that when a horse breathes, it can generate a negative pressure in its lungs. High-intensity activities like races, combined with a narrow nasal passageway, put extra pressure on the horse and often result in a hemorrhage in the lungs.
The Flair nasal strip is designed to alleviate that.
Poole said he was skeptical of the product when approached by manufacturers. Poole and Erickson conducted a randomized, control study on seven geldings trained to run on a treadmill.
Results showed that the nasal strip did improve the airway, leading to reduced lung damage.
“The nasal strip reduces bleeding, reduces the secondary infections that can damage the lung afterward and also may help facilitate the horse to perform better,” Poole said.
The researchers say the nasal strip may improve performance because it reduces fatigue. They believe this is a more honest approach to racing enhancements and a better alternative than some drugs currently being used.
“Unfortunately, the horse racing industry is a mine of drugs,” Poole said. “You don’t know under any given circumstances what a horse may or may not be on.”
Nasal strips are used worldwide at other horse events such as barrel racing and eventing.
California Chrome, with wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes under his belt, is now just two weeks away from the Belmont Stakes, and the chance to be the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
This week, the New York State Gaming Commission, New York Racing Association and The Jockey Club confirmed that the three stewards at Belmont Park had unanimously agreed to allow the use of equine nasal strips on tracks in the state.
The decision followed a request from California Chrome’s trainer, Art Sherman, for permission to use nasal strips on the horse, amid media reports the horse may not have been a starter if he was banned from wearing them.
The stewards sought expert analysis from the New York State Gaming Commission’s equine medical director, Scott Palmer.
Palmer recommended that stewards lift the ban.
“Equine nasal strips do not enhance equine performance nor do they pose a risk to equine health or safety and as such do not need to be regulated,” Palmer said.
“While there is research to indicate that equine nasal strips decrease airway resistance in horses and may decrease the amount of bleeding associated with EIPH to some degree, I am unfamiliar with any research indicating that equine nasal strips enable a horse to run faster with nasal strips than without them.
“In other words, there is no evidence they have a performance enhancing effect. Equine nasal strips do not pose a welfare or safety risk to the horse. They are applied to the top of the nose and anyone can see their use prior to a race.
“If improperly applied, equine nasal strips cannot interfere with performance. In my opinion equine nasal strips fall into the same category as tongue-ties.”
The stewards considered Palmer’s advice and lifted the ban.