California Chrome’s Triple Crown bid: A win by a nose would be nice

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Colorado State University veterinary graduate Ed Blach applies the nasal strip he co-invented on Eli, a horse owned by Kat Fentiman. Photo: CSU
Colorado State University veterinary graduate Ed Blach applies the nasal strip he co-invented on Eli, a horse owned by Kat Fentiman. Photo: CSU

What product could do better in the promotional stakes than a Triple Crown victory?

That is the tantalizing prospect ahead for Colorado-trained veterinarian Ed Blach, who came up with the idea of equine nasal strips.

Now, California Chrome, the most famous horse to wear Flair nasal strips to date, will line up this weekend in his bid to notch up the first Triple Crown victory since Affirmed in 1978.

The horse, with wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in the bag, prompted a rule change from New York racing authorities to allow the use of nasal strips.

The idea has come a long way since it came to Blach in the middle of night 17 years ago.

California Chrome (purple colours) heads to the front of the Kentucky Derby field.
California Chrome (purple colours) at the front of the Kentucky Derby field.

“I sat up in bed at 3 in the morning, and I had this idea,” explains Blach, a Colorado State University veterinary graduate and resident of Monument, Colorado.

“Why hasn’t anyone developed a nasal strip for horses?”

Now, FLAIR Equine Nasal Strips are in the limelight as California Chrome makes his final preparations for the $US1.5 million race over one and a half miles on the Belmont track known as Big Sandy.

The FLAIR strips, patterned after a human version that deters snoring, were co-invented by Blach and his business partner, Jim Chiapetta, a fellow veterinarian.

Blach said the strips made sense to the pair. They wanted to create a strip that would help keep nasal passages open during rigorous equine performance, making breathing easier and relieving stress on the lungs, particularly important because horses breathe only through their nostrils.

But it was an uphill battle.

Blach and Chiapetta had been close friends since they worked together in the mid-1980s at Littleton Equine Medical Center, a clinic near Denver, Colorado.

After his epiphany in 1997, Blach called Chiapetta, who by then had become a patent attorney. The two developed the product for horses, and then licensed their technology to the company that made Breathe Right strips for humans.

Yet horse trainers and veterinarians were skeptical of the new 4-by-6-inch strips, even after a university study showed they decreased energy consumption and chances of bleeding in the lungs, Blach said.

“We were told we were nuts, that it wouldn’t work for this reason or that,” he recalled.

Their sales pitch fell on deaf ears until just before the 1999 Breeder’s Cup. That is when the New York Times ran a story about a winning horse that had worn a FLAIR strip; a few high-odds contenders likewise won Breeder’s Cup races while wearing the product.

The tide soon turned on the nasal strips, and Blach himself began to breathe easier.

The drug-free strips have had other critics, but clinical studies have shown they reduce airflow resistance and negative pressure in the lungs.

Dr Wayne McIlwraith, a renowned Colorado State University equine veterinarian who has worked with many racehorses, said the strip seems a preferable alternative to drugs that have been used to prevent exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage.

“If I was a racehorse trainer with a good horse, I’d use them,” he said. “But there are plenty of people who ignore science.”

Blach graduated with his veterinary degree in 1984 and also earned a master’s degree in equine reproductive physiology at CSU.

He practiced as an equine veterinarian in California, but after developing an arthritic condition sought an MBA and started a consulting business in veterinary health.

He credits his professors in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences for encouraging his entrepreneurial spirit.

“I had a great time in vet school, with really good people,” he said. “CSU was fabulous. I had really good mentors all the way.”

The Blach family settled on Colorado’s Eastern Plains in 1887 and later formed strong ties to the university. Multiple family members, from several generations, have attended and supported the university.

Blach is now chief operating officer for Flair, which now makes and sells the strips on its own. He said he will closely watch the Belmont Stakes to see if California Chrome wins the first Triple Crown since 1978, wearing the strip he envisioned in the middle of the night.

“There is increased awareness and more willingness to listen to the true health intent of the strip now,” he noted. “We weren’t interested in creating a fad.”

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