In a sport in which races are often won by the length of a nose, anything touting the slightest performance edge will get a lot of hype.
Last year’s Breeders’ Cup marked the debut of the equine nasal strip, billed as the answer to horse racing’s ever-competitive quest for an advantage. The device, known as the Flair strip, looks like a long, narrow Band-Aid and is designed to enhance oxygen intake through the nose.
Thirty-one horses in last year’s Breeders’ Cup races wore the strip, including three of eight winners. The success of horses using the device, which is produced by Minneapolis-based CNS Inc., made the strip increasingly popular in the following months.
But one year later, as horses and trainers descend upon Churchill Downs in Kentucky for this year’s Breeders’ Cup, there is little talk of the once-popular strip. The enthusiasm for the so-called revolutionary device has waned as many now believe the adhesive does nothing to actually enhance performance or help win races.
“People thought it would be a revolutionary thing, but it hasn’t turned out that way,” says Ira Kaplan, senior editor at the Daily Racing Form. He says trainers are mixed about whether they think the strip is effective.
Revolution Did Not Happen
“Everyone is looking for some kind of advantage,” says New York Racing Association veterinarian Dr. Celeste Kunz. “So when the Flair strips first came out everyone was talking about them and wondering about them. Equine associations had conferences and experts came and talked about them.”
Indeed, trainers have been trying to find ways to increase a horse’s oxygen intake for years. In the past, some would place nose rings in each of the horse’s nostrils, then tie the rings down to the harness with a shoelace to hold the nostrils open wide, some veterinarians say.
The $15 Flair strips are a seemingly more comfortable option for horses. Like similar strips worn by athletes in the Olympics, in football games and in some track and field events, the equine strips are placed about an inch and a half above the horse’s nostrils, on a narrow part of the nose. The strip is designed to hold the nasal passages open, allowing maximum air flow, since horses breathe only through their noses and not their mouths.
Some trainers and veterinarians believe bleeding from the lungs is also reduced by using the strip because it is easier for a horse to take in oxygen, Kunz said.
Horses sometimes bleed in their lungs and from their noses due to hard running and, some say, from the diuretic Lasix. Vets often give horses the drug in the belief it will prevent bleeds, but some say it may actually cause them.
More Research Needed
CNS introduced Breathe Right, the original strip for humans, in the early 1990s. Shortly thereafter, CNS Chairman Dan Cohen said he received calls from nearly 100 people in the horse business wondering whether the strips could be adapted for horses.
A couple of years later, a device was developed with the help of veterinarian Ed Blach. Blach noticed a small depression on the narrow part of the horse’s snout where soft tissue could be seen collapsing as the animal struggled for breath. He thought a device similar to the Breathe Right could help keep the horse’s nasal passageway open, and soon the Flair strip was born.
CNS sold approximately 100,000 of the single-use strips for horses this year, says Cohen, who would not comment on whether sales of the Flair had increased or decreased since last year.
But whether the device actually enhances performance is a matter of debate. At last year’s Breeders’ Cup, winners Anees, Cash Run, and Cat Thief all wore nasal strips. Still others wearing the strips have come in dead last.
“My mom used to wear the same lucky blouse to my races and she was sure that was why I won,” says Kunz. “In our opinion, it is not likely that [the nasal strips] do anything for the horse. The human nose and the equine nose are very different. They might work as well as my mom’s lucky blouse did. I think more data has to be done as to whether they help, hurt, or don’t make a difference.”
Researchers at Kansas State University are currently investigating lung capacity in horses and part of the study looks at what the Flair strip may do.
Preliminary findings have shown a 33 percent reduction in bleeding in a study of a small number of horses using the strip. So far, the research — which is still in its early stages — hasn’t shown a disadvantage in using the device, according to Dr. Howard Erickson, head of the department of anatomy and physiology. But it hasn’t shown a competitive advantage either.
“The horse is a phenomenal athlete,” says Erickson. “The pressure becomes very high when the airways are under the immense pressure a race incurs. But, still, we don’t know if the strips affect performance.”
Hype, Number of Users Decline
At the time of last year’s Breeders’ Cup, only Kentucky and Florida allowed the equine nasal strip. Now, 29 of the 35 states with racetracks allow them. The six states that do not allow the strips are New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Virginia and Wyoming.
But while more states allow the strips, fewer trainers are using them, and it is not yet clear how many horses will be donning the strip at the Breeders’ Cup this year.
“To the best of our knowledge the only one using the strip is Wayne [Lukas],” says Bernie Hettel, executive director and chief steward for Churchill Downs, referring to the Hall of Fame trainer. “We used to track them as equipment but we don’t do that mostly because not many people are using them and there’s no scientific evidence to the validity of them as a sports enhancer.”
While some may not be personally tracking horses that use the strips, the Daily Racing Form still places an “n” next to “b” for blinkers in the form’s equipment box listings to indicate to bettors which entrant will be wearing the strip.
John Gollehon, author of the book Budget Gambling, says the strips are very much in the spotlight for those who bet on horses. “Gamblers recognize only one thing: the advantage,” he says. “If they see something they think is an advantage they will bet on that.”
Still, many trainers are less confident about the strip’s supposed benefits and are opting to keep their horses’ noses free and clear of the device.
“They are not that useful,” says Winter Haven, Fla.-based Janet Del Castillo, author and thoroughbred trainer. “I don’t see anyone using them anymore, at least in Florida. Horses are remarkably wonderfully designed animal for such a thing as a race. When they need extra support for their breathing, they flair their nostrils.”