While walking 3-year-old filly My Sweet Lucy early on Oct. 10, trainer Frank Olivares noticed that she had a runny nose. He assumed she'd caught a virus from one of the sick horses in his barn at Santa Anita Park, near Los Angeles. "I thought it was a cold," Olivares says. "No big deal." That runny nose turned out to be a very big deal: It was one of four recent incidents of so-called sponging and is evidence of an apparent failed attempt to fix the second race on Oct. 10 at Santa Anita, a $40,000 claiming event for fillies.
Investigators believe that sometime in early October, two people—perhaps workers at Santa Anita—entered My Sweet Lucy's barn late at night and shoved a tennis-ball-sized sponge 10 to 12 inches into her left nasal passage. Because a horse breathes only through its nose, the sponge restricts the flow of oxygen and hinders racing ability. Someone also sponged the nostrils of Spiderette, the 2-1 favorite in the Oct. 10 race, and of stablemate Tonietta. After the latter was acting strange on Oct. 10, both horses were examined. Sponges were discovered, and the horses were scratched from the day's card.
Those weren't the only October sponging incidents in Southern California. On Oct. 8, a 3-year-old gelding named Yukon Charley sneezed out a sponge during a workout at Hollywood Park. "The people who did this know horses," says Yukon Charley's trainer, Pico Perdomo, whose horse went off as the third choice on Oct. 4 and finished third. "People who work with horses are supposed to love horses. I don't know who could do something so cruel."
The California Horse Racing Board intends to find out. Although investigators wouldn't divulge their findings last week, trainers speculated that those responsible got the idea from a chapter in the recent bestseller Seabiscuit, which details a failed attempt to sponge that famed horse (above) before a 1938 race at Santa Anita.
Security has been tightened at California's tracks: Most trainers last week began to monitor their barns with surveillance cameras and/or night watchmen. "They caught us by surprise this time," says Perdomo, whose horse, along with the others, is back racing, "but it will never happen again."