Sponging probe at Delaware Park Print E-mail

I once asked a DEA agent what human trait stood out most when he conducted surveillance and investigations over his lengthy career?

“Greed, it’s a powerful thing,” he replied.

Last October Maren’s Meadow went off as the heavy, 9-10 favorite in an allowance race at Delaware Park. Ridden by Chester County native Mario Pino, the 2-year old filly matched strides with eventual winner Picker for the first half-mile then faded in the stretch. She finished third by 6 ¼-lengths.

When mucous began spewing from Maren’s Meadow’s nose a couple days later trainer Larry Jones shipped the horse to a top equine clinic in Kentucky. A small sponge was discovered stuffed high up in one of the nostrils of the promising 2-year old filly.

The sponge was inserted to hamper the filly’s air intake and compromise her performance. Cpl. John Whitemarsh confirmed last week that the Delaware state police and other agencies are investigating the apparent race-fixing incident. Racing investigators are also studying the bets placed on the race. Most likely someone sponged the favorite and laid some serious cash on the other two contenders. Then they walked away with huge winnings.

The horse’s owner Susan Rasmussen feared the worst.

“They were prepared to take out a tumor, and here was a sponge,” Rasmussen said in an interview with Blood-Horse magazine. “It wasn’t a sponge like you have in a kitchen sink; it was a sponge with small, uniform holes. You couldn’t look into the nose without a scope and even see it.”

If it had been a tumor, it very well could have ended the filly’s life.

“Even a benign tumor — if it was that close to the brain — removing it could have killed or blinded her,” she explained. “I was so relieved that I still had her. Then I got mad.”

The good news is that Maren’s Meadow worked a half-mile last week at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans where Jones stables a group of his horses in the winter. The trainer suggested that the filly could be racing again by early January.

So how did the sponging happen?

To get to the backsides barns where Maren’s Meadow was stabled, you need to pass through a gate that is manned by security personnel 24 hours a day.

Jones was the trainer of high-profile 3-year Hard Spun, the runner-up in the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic races. He says there were 24-hour security guards outside his barn.

Two nights before the October race, a fire broke out roughly 300 feet from Jones’ barn.

“We think that perhaps there was enough of a disruption to distract the guard,” Rasmussen said. “It would have taken two people, one to hold the horse and one to administer the sponge.”

The incident is reminiscent of cases during the 1996-’97 season when at least a dozen horses in Kentucky were ”sponged.” William McCandless was indicted, but fled and has never been captured. Another case was reported in New Mexico in 1997 where the trainer was suspended indefinitely.

John Wayne is on the Delaware Park case.

Wayne, the Delaware Racing commission’s top official, said he could not comment on the status of the investigation, but said the incident is being treated as a criminal act. The culprit could be charged with animal cruelty and influencing the outcome of a horse race which carries a sentence of up to five years in prison.

"We want to find out who did this heinous act, and why,” Wayne said last Wednesday. “It’s not just for the health of the animal and the integrity of the race, but for the safety of the riders and other horses in the race."

The sponging episode is another black eye for the sport.

It follows top trainer Patrick Biancone’s one-year suspension when cobra venom was discovered in one of his barns at Keeneland racetrack in Kentucky.

Delaware Park took a lot of heat last season for short fields. The sponging incident occurred in a five horse race. Short fields of horses make it much easier to attempt to fix a race.

The betting public is what makes the game go. Without horseplayers, there is no horse racing industry. The racing investigators need to get this right.


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