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.”