True Crime in Horse Racing: Small Sponges, Big Problems
Gallant Fox’s arrival in Saratoga in July 1930 came at a tense time. Reports that several horses had been tampered with prompted owner William Woodward and trainer “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons to post guards near the Triple Crown winner’s stall around the clock. The incessant crowds coming to gaze at the sensational Thoroughbred added even more stress to the situation.
Nearly seven decades later, a rash of similar incidents at Churchill Downs put the sport on high alert. In all, 10 horses were affected, with at least one suffering a serious injury. As racetracks wrestled with questions about security and access, everyone from fans to owners grappled with the idea that someone was hurting horses on purpose. Who was harming horses and why?
Investigators found a common thread among these events: the horses involved were all sponged. Much like what happened at Saratoga in 1930, someone had shoved a small, usually egg-shaped sponge up one or both nostrils of the affected horses. The result is as much as a 50% decrease in airflow through that nostril. Because horses can breathe only through their nose, this seriously impeded respiration, especially when running at top speed.
Among those sponged was a gelding named Class O Lad. On June 14, 1997, he entered the gate as the 7-5 favorite in a 1 1/16-mile claiming race at Churchill Downs and had to be eased before the finish line. He had won his previous two starts so what could have caused this turnaround in form?
A post-race examination yielded the culprit: not one but two sponges lodged in the gelding’s nose. The stress of the situation caused laminitis, which led not only to Class O Lad’s immediate retirement but also threatened his life. In late September, the gelding, suffering from colic and the lingering effects of laminitis, was euthanized, a sad ending for the horse most affected by these incidents.
Unlike other means of compromising a horse’s performance, sponges are not detectable with a test. Rather, odd nasal discharge or foul odors prompted connections to request endoscopic examinations, where a small camera is inserted into the nose to detect what might be impeding a horse’s breathing. Soon, racetracks began implementing pre-race examinations to help uncover any interference before the horse competed, hoping to prevent another case like that of Class O Lad.
As authorities looked at the sponging incidents, they could detect no pattern that led to a definitive suspect. There had been gap of several months between incidents in 1996-1997. None of the races affected had led to indications of an organized betting coup. It took more than a year from the first reported sponging before any sort of lead emerged.
The sport was about to find out that the name was behind all of this was one with a surprising connection to a high-profile 1977 crime.
As the FBI pursued the person responsible, racetracks beefed up their backside security and newspapers reported a $50,000 reward offered for information. An informant contacted authorities with a name already known to law enforcement in Kentucky: William McCandless.
Two decades earlier, McCandless was behind the kidnapping of Canadian champion Fanfreluche, in foal to Secretariat at the time.
The mare was eventually found six months later on a southern Kentucky farm, but McCandless had eluded capture until three years later. He resurfaced when he was arrested in a separate case and later served time for kidnapping Fanfreluche and for his role in a farm equipment theft ring.
After prison, McCandless, whose connection to racing dated back to a trainer grandfather and a jockey uncle, floated from place to place, his gambling problems dogging his steps. By 1996, he had come up with a scheme to fix races through sponging the likely betting favorites, paving the way for horses with longer odds to win and thus pay out larger sums to bettors. He had shared his scheme with informant George Isaacs, who had refused to get involved and thought nothing of McCandless’s wild plot – until news reports about the sponging incidents at Churchill Downs.
The FBI had Isaacs invite McCandless over and wear a wire during their conversation.
The former backstretch worker shared that he had planned to move his scheme from Kentucky to Illinois and Isaacs pretended that he wanted in on the plot. The recorded conversation was enough for the agency to raid McCandless’s Tennessee home. There, they found sponges among other tools for fixing races. Despite two stints in prison, McCandless had pursued illicit means to gain an advantage at the betting windows and the authorities were ready to punish him for it.
A grand jury returned charges for wire fraud and interstate travel to pursue criminal activity. If convicted, McCandless faced penalties of upward of 30 years in prison and a $1.5 million fine. A warrant was issued for his arrest, but the man disappeared again, much as he had after the Fanfreluche incident.
McCandless was even featured on the television program America’s Most Wanted, but that yielded no new information. The man behind Fanfreluche’s kidnapping and the sponging of multiple horses has not been seen since.
As of 2022, McCandless remains a fugitive from justice. While he may never face trial for his crimes, the state of Kentucky acted to upgrade the charge of tampering with a horse from a misdemeanor to a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Additionally, Fanfreluche’s 1977 kidnapping led to an increase in security on breeding farms and the inclusion of provisions for theft in equine insurance policies. Twenty-five years after the spate of sponging incidents, backside security remains a focus for racetracks around the world.