California Chrome, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, can wear his Flair Equine Nasal Strip in the Belmont Stakes, New York state regulators ruled. That's likely because the adhesive patches may be more of a good luck charm for the horse than actual physical benefit — and the same goes for human athletes, too, experts say.
The Flair strips for horses are similar to their human equivalent, Breathe Right or other nasal congestion relief strips, worn by professional football players and non-athletes who just want to breathe easier.
California Chrome’s trainer had said that the horse might skip the Belmont if officials didn’t drop their ban on the nasal strips. On Monday, state stewards at Belmont Park agreed to allow their use.
Both versions of the strips work by forcing the nostrils wider open. What’s not been determined is whether they dramatically improve performance in either horses or humans, experts say.
The strips “are meant to hold the nostrils open in both horses and humans,” said Dr. Larry Bramlage, the on-call vet for the Triple Crown races. “But it’s a little different in horses in that the airway is a lot more rigid and the area of narrowness is not in the nostrils but in the throat. And while it does make a measurable difference in airway pressure in horses, that difference is very small.”
In some horses the strips may lower the risk of “bleeding,” said Dr. Rose Nolen-Walston, a pulmonary specialist and an assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.
“The horse is basically a really finely honed machine turning air into energy and energy into speed,” Nolen-Walston said. “One place where this can break down is during exertion when the nostrils can collapse a bit, which can cause a negative pressure on the lungs. This can cause small blood vessels in the lungs to burst sending blood into the lungs. In really bad cases, blood can actually be seen dripping from horses’ noses.”
That bleeding can slow a horse down, Nolen-Walston said.
“About 80 to 90 percent of horses have some degree of bleeding at maximum exercise,” Nolen-Walston said. “The same is true of really, really elite human athletes and greyhounds.”
For horses with only mild bleeding issues, the nasal strip might be a better choice than medications with possible side effects, Nolen-Walston said.
So far there hasn’t been research showing that the Flair strips enhance performance, Nolen-Walston said. “But they have been shown to reduce a medical problem [bleeding] that can reduce performance,” she added. “So, in that it prevents a medical problem, it may enhance performance. But it doesn’t directly make horses run faster.”
The same might be said for humans using the Breathe Right strip, said Dr. Aaron Mares, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh Center for Sports Medicine and the associate team physician for Pitt Football.
“People have looked at this for the last 15 to 20 years,” Mares said. “We know that it can increase air flow through the nasal passages. And there is limited evidence that can improve performance, but not dramatically.”
Ultimately, Mares said, if an athlete is having breathing difficulties, it makes more sense to find out what the real problem is, whether it’s a deviated septum, a polyp, allergies or chronic inflammation, and correct that.
“When my athletes come in saying they’re having difficulties breathing through their noses and can they use a nasal strip, I tell them, ‘It’s not going to hurt you, but maybe we should get down to the underlying cause of why you’re not able to breathe effectively,’” Mares said.
For some athletes the strips may help a bit once — and then turn into a kind of good luck charm that they don’t want to give up, Mares said.
When it comes to California Chrome, taking away the nasal strip might have had a bigger psychological than physical impact, Bramlage said.
“Horses like routines very much,” he explained. “They like to be in the same comfortable situation each time they go to the post. It’s his routine and I think [the stewards] were right to let them use it.”
Linda Carroll is a regular contributor to NBCNews.com and Today.com as well as co-author of "The Concussion Crisis: Anatomy of a Silent Epidemic" and the newly released "Duel for the Crown: Affirmed, Alydar, and Racing's Greatest Rivalry."