Security tight after sponges found in horses' noses

Thursday, November 29, 2001

LOS ANGELES -- Jenine Sahadi swaps halters on her horses to hide their identities. Bob Baffert also plays the name game, removing brass plates that would let a stranger know which horse is which.

These are some of the moves thoroughbred trainers at Southern California racetracks have taken since someone stuffed small sponges up the nostrils of several horses in October.

"Somebody had a very deliberate game plan here and they knew what they were doing," Sahadi said after saddling a horse at Hollywood Park. "I don't know if it was gambling-related or vendetta-related."

The California Horse Racing Board is investigating four incidents that occurred over seven days in October at Santa Anita racetrack near Los Angeles.

In 1996 and '97, more than 10 horses were found with sponges in their nostrils at Kentucky's Churchill Downs. William Michael McCandless was indicted by a federal grand jury but disappeared before he could be brought to trial.

The only other recent case was in 1997, when a horse at The Downs racetrack in Santa Fe, N.M., was found with two sponges in its nostrils. The horse's trainer was suspended indefinitely.

Because horses breathe through their nose, a sponge could restrict airflow and impair racing ability. The problem hasn't been linked to any deaths, but the high-strung and unpredictable animals, weighing about 1,000 pounds, can put their human handlers at risk if they are struggling to breathe.

"It's kind of dangerous because a horse is trying very hard, and he could run out of oxygen and he could collapse," said Laffit Pincay Jr., the all-time leading jockey with more than 9,000 wins.

Different motives

Investigators are studying betting patterns and scrutinizing the hundreds of people who have access to backstretches at Southern California tracks.

"They are looking for any common denominators, an employee who had moved from one barn to another, a veterinarian, a horseshoer," racing board spokesman Mike Marten said.

Some believe the sponging might have been an attempt to fix a race. Sabotaging a horse's breathing could allow a bettor to pick other horses in an exotic wager, potentially resulting in high payoffs.

"With exotic wagering, if you can take out two of them, and it's a 12-horse field, then you can do it," Baffert said.

Pincay believes the sponging is gambling-related.

"In my opinion, it's somebody that wanted to take an opportunity to cash a bet," he said. "I think it's somebody that probably works in the barn or is around."

Improved security

The sponging has revived talk of improving track security.

"It's sort of scary, but I think everybody's on red alert," said Baffert, who trained Silver Charm and Real Quiet, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners in 1997 and 1998.

Baffert and Sahadi agreed that whoever is responsible had time and knew what they were doing.

"It can't be an easy process. (Horses) don't want foreign things stuck up their nose," Sahadi said.

Baffert believes it's someone who has tampered with horses before.

"It's not his first time," he said. "They'd have to know horses."

No permanent damage

None of the horses was permanently injured and some have raced since. Many trainers use endoscopic examinations on their horses, which would reveal a sponge and other ailments.

A common thread is that the sponging occurred among lesser-known trainers with small barns.

"It would be hard for it to happen to a big stable like ours," Baffert said. "I really think you'd see this problem in the lower levels."

Baffert and Sahadi routinely work for blue-chip clients, whose horses run in Triple Crown and million-dollar stakes races. That gives them money to hire round-the-clock security and maintain a large payroll.

At Hollywood Park in Inglewood, where racing continues until Dec. 17, security director Don Barney said workers have been trained to look for unusual behavior in a horse or a telltale bulge in an animal's nostril.

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