IN A BID to become the 12th Triple Crown winner, California Chrome will race the Belmont Stakes on June 7 with a small adhesive strip stuck to his nose, just as he's done for his previous six (winning) races. But is wearing the strip superstition or science?
The answer lies in anatomical peculiarities unique to horses -- design quirks that can hinder the process of efficiently delivering massive amounts of oxygen to muscles. "For 6,000 years we've bred horses for speed and power," says David C. Poole, professor of kinesiology and physiology at Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine. And that, he says, comes at a cost.
Bleeding in the lungs is one of the worst maladies that racehorses face; it stems from a weak spot in the nose that collapses easily during intense activity. Known formally as Exercise-Induced Pulmonary Hemorrhage, or EIPH, lung bleeding is an often-invisible problem that plagues most racehorses, Poole says. And it's been shown to not only hurt race performance but also delay recovery and potentially cause lung damage.
Nasal strips address this problem directly. The strips attach to a spot just above a horse's nostrils, using tension in an embedded piece of springy plastic to keep the nose's weak spot open. The extra airflow translates to big savings in the horse's effort to suck in air; imagine drinking a milk shake with a fat straw compared with a thin one.
So why, then, aren't more horses wearing them? Jim Chiapetta, co-inventor of the strip and president of Flair LLC, says it's simply a matter of education. "People just don't read the scientific literature," he says. If they did, they'd find compelling results: Since 2000, seven studies from various independent teams have found that horses wearing nasal strips show many benefits, including less lung bleeding, less airway resistance and less fatigue, and they enjoy a quicker recovery -- all crucial factors given Belmont's 1-and-a-half-mile track.
California Chrome's owners might be most interested in one of those studies, in particular: A 2007 analysis of nearly 400 thoroughbreds at the Calder Race Course in Florida found that wearing a patch increased the chances of winning by 3.4 percent. And at only $10.50 per strip, that might be a chance worth gambling on.
Horses, believe it or not, breathe only through their noses -- an evolutionary adaptation that allows them to flee predators while still munching on grass.
Extreme suction from inhalations within such a narrow passage, which lacks bone support, can cause this weak spot to collapse, slowing down airflow.
Horses' long necks mean more airway resistance, so they work proportionally harder than humans to get oxygen to the lungs.
Inhaled oxygen must cross delicate lung membranes to get to the bloodstream. On one side of the membrane are blood vessels bursting with high pressure; on the other side is suction from powerful inhalations. The result is not unlike a "lung hickey" -- blood drips into the lungs, causing EIPH.