California Chrome (5) after winning the 2014 Kentucky Derby. The horse is wearing the white nasal strip.

(Photo: Courtesy of Bill Brine)
On Saturday a horse called California Chrome will try to become the first Triple Crown winner since the 1970s. The colt has already won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, and goes for the sweep at this weekend's Belmont Stakes.

The most controversial part of California Chrome's Triple Crown bid isn't his training or his owner. It's the nasal strip the horse wears, which is very similar to what humans use to stop snoring or breathe better while playing sports. Until mid-May, New York, home of Belmont Park, didn't allow use of the strips during thoroughbred races.

The strip is made by FLAIR, a company started by two veterinarians who met when they both worked at a clinic in Littleton, Colo. during graduate school. Dr. Ed Blach went to Colorado State University and still lives in Monument, Colo. Dr. Jim Chiapetta attended school in Minnesota and now lives in California. But the two have remained close friends and business partners.

Blach says he got the idea for the nasal strip one night in the mid-1990s, when he was sleeping at home.

"I sat up in bed at 3 a.m.," Blach says. "I called Jim, and that's how we got started."

"We had a habit of cracking a beer and talking on the phone after our families went to bed," Chiapetta says. He laughed about the idea for a few minutes, but Chiapetta says it got serious very quickly. "The next day I started digging into horse anatomy and things that had gone on in humans using the Breathe Right strip," he says. "So if I did think it was nuts, it wasn’t for very long."

Blach says the strips help horses take in an appropriate amount of air while they run, since horses only breathe through their noses, and helps them recover immediately after a race.

"When they’re running at full speed, they have to move hundreds of gallons of air through their nasal passages," Blach says. 

Horses regularly bleed in their lungs during and immediately after races. The nasal strips help reduce the likelihood of that happening.

Blach and Chiapetta worked with Breathe Right to distribute the strips in 1999 until Breathe Right decided to focus on products for humans and pulled out of the partnership. 

Over the years, Blach and Chiapetta have campaigned for various horse racing bodies in the U.S. and abroad to approve use of the strips. New York was the last U.S. state to allow them, but did so as a result of California Chrome's success this spring and pressure from the public.

California Chrome isn't the only Triple Crown threat to use the nasal strips. I'll Have Another wore one when he won the Derby and the Preakness two years ago. But that horse had to pull out of the Belmont Stakes because of a leg injury, so it didn't force the issue with the New York racing body.

The Belmont Stakes takes place Saturday at 4:52 p.m. MT. Don't be late: the race typically lasts just a couple of minutes.