By Julian Linden
NEW YORK, May 18 (Reuters) - California Chrome's bid to win American horse racing's Triple Crown could be in jeopardy because of a rarely used rule banning nasal strips.
The three-year-old has the chance to become the first horse in 36 years to complete the elusive treble after winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes in impressive style.
The colt only needs to win the Belmont Stakes, in New York on June 7, to complete the set, but his trainer Art Sherman raised the possibility, albeit seemingly remote, that he may not enter the race unless he is allowed to wear a nasal strip.
California Chrome wore a nasal strip in each of his last six races, all of which he won in. Sherman said nasal strips can help horses breathe a little easier and are allowed in most American states.
But New York is one of the rare exceptions, although they not specifically banned and are allowed in harness racing in the Empire State, trainers need to get permission to use them.
Sherman said he would ask New York racing officials for clarification on whether California Chrome could wear the strip and would confer with the horse's owners about what to do if the request was turned down.
"Now that's going to be interesting," Sherman told reporters on Sunday morning.
"The horse has been on a six-race winning streak with nasal strips. I don't know why they would ban you from wearing one, but we'll have to cross that bridge when we get there, I guess."
The New York State Gaming Commission issued a statement on Sunday saying that it was up to the stewards to approve the use of nasal strips.
"Neither the New York State Gaming Commission nor the stewards at the New York Racing Association have received a request to use nasal strips in the June 7 Belmont Stakes," the statement read.
"If a request to use nasal strips is made, the decision on whether to permit them or not will be fully evaluated and determined by the stewards.
"This is in accordance with the Commission's Thoroughbred Rule 4033.8, which states: "Only equipment specifically approved by the stewards shall be worn or carried by a jockey or a horse in a race."
Only 11 horses, including the legendary Secretariat, have won the Triple Crown, with Affirmed, in 1978, the most recent, so the stakes are high, and not only for the horse's connections.
Horse racing in the United States has all the trademarks of a sport in decline. Attendances at race tracks across the country are steadily dropping, along with revenues. The sport rarely gets any attention in the mainstream America media, except for the Triple Crown and the Breeders Cup.
The world's best horses seldom race in America because the prize money is smaller than in many overseas nations. But nothing would give the sport a boost and raise the profile more than a Triple Crown winner.
California Chrome is the 13th horse since Affirmed to have won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness but none have gone on and won the Belmont, which is held over one and half miles (2400 metres), the longest and most gruelling of the three races.
"I have a good feeling about it. I'm really confident going into this race," Sherman said.
"After watching him run yesterday with two weeks (between races) and showing the courage that he had, they better have their running shoes on. I don't care how many fresh shooters they've got there, he's the real McCoy."
Adding to the challenge facing California Chrome is that most of the top finishers in the Derby, including the horses that placed second to sixth, skipped the Preakness to save themselves for the Belmont.
Sherman said his horse faced a tough task beating the fresher horses but said the challenge was expected.
"I'm thinking what the journey is, one more shot," he said.
"I'm going to have a lot of fresh shooters waiting for me in New York. He's done everything we've asked of him. He really doesn't have a lot to prove.
"He's been a super horse for us. He's one of those horses that you're going to have to outrun to beat him. Maybe they won't be able to beat him." (Editing by Gene Cherry)