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NBC Sports, California Chrome get nod for starting gate by Belmont Stakes' regulators

Belmont Stakes' regulators rendered a decision that enables California Chrome to race for the first Triple Crown in 36 years.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

NBC Sports and its stakeholders were biting at the bit awaiting a ruling on a piece of equipment that threatened the availability of California Chrome for this year’s Belmont Stakes and the thoroughbred’s shot at the first Triple Crown since 1978.  Early Monday Morning, team Chrome and NBC Sports got their wish.

The New York Racing Association (NYRA) stewards with the help of the New York State Gaming Commission approved the use of a nasal strip for California Chrome which has been worn by the horse at the suggestion of co-owner Perry Martin over the last six races.  The nasal strip is much like the “breathe-right” strips you’ll see NFL players wear on Sundays and can help oxygenate athletes.

The Belmont Stakes are 1 1/2 miles in length—the longest of the three Triple Crown races—and the most grueling.  If the nasal strip were to be used in any of the Triple Crown races, now is surely the time.

Regulation of Equipment at Belmont

Currently there are no specific rules that ban nasal strips at the Belmont Stakes, but any piece of equipment worn by the horse or jockey outside of a whip must be specifically approved by the Commission.

Trainer Art Sherman raised the possibility that owner Martin may decide against running in the Belmont Stakes if a nasal strip is not approved, and this brinksmanship just may have been enough to convince regulators in team Chrome’s favor.

What’s odd is the NYRA allows nasal strips for harness racing. Yet when it comes to Thoroughbred racing, the NYRA stewards firmly stand against it, citing the desire to maintain fairness and consistency in the sport if the nasal strip truly does give a thoroughbred a significant advantage.

Photo Credit: Mike Segar/Reuters

Deja Vu in 2012

In 2012, an almost identical situation unfolded when I’ll Have Another and its owners petitioned to wear a similar nasal strip in the Belmont Stakes after taking home the Kentucky Derby and Preakness that year.

I’ll Have Another was shot down by the NYRA’s stewards and not allowed to wear a nasal strip in the final leg of the Triple Crown.  The ruling became irrelevant, though, as I’ll Have Another days later became diagnosed with tendinitis in his left front leg and was scratched from the race.

Despite I’ll Have Another’s scratch, the Belmont Stakes’ ratings soared 13 percent from the previous year and represented the best non-Triple Crown Belmont since 2005 in terms of viewership.

The strong ratings were likely still a result of the intrigue surrounding I’ll Have Another’s shot at the Triple Crown as the thoroughbred’s scratch came late Friday before Saturday’s big race with much of the viewing public learning of the news only after tuning into NBC for race day.

NBC Sports’ Interests at Stake

This year, NBC’s coverage of Saturday’s Preakness received its highest TV-ratings since 2010 by riding the saddle of California Chrome’s Kentucky Derby runaway victory.  Expect the ratings surge to continue for NBC as the dream of a Triple Crown winner is still alive and well off the heels of Monday’s ruling.

For NBC Sports Group, which has invested hundreds of millions of dollars for the rights to broadcast the Triple Crown races through 2015 and the Breeders’ Cup through 2016, the absence of California Chrome would have been a potentially huge setback to the positive momentum NBC has generated for its thoroughbred racing coverage this year, and the advertising dollars that match this momentum could have fallen, or ‘spit-the-bit.’

Now, with the thoroughbred’s owners and trainers receiving a favorable ruling Monday, California Chrome and NBC Sports are right in the money.

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