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Working to Stop the Sponging of Thoroughbreds

by Vickie Mitchell

Someone is pushing sponges far into the nostrils of thoroughbreds at one of the nation's leading racetracks, endangering the animals' lives and sullying the image of thoroughbred racing. No one knows who is doing this or why. There's speculation that the culprit -- someone with easy access to horses in the track's stable area -- is angry at the racetrack and is seeking revenge, but so far the "sponger" hasn't been found.

After investigative efforts failed to catch the person who placed sponges in the nasal passages of eight horses at Louisville's Churchill Downs in the summer of 1996, the state's racing commission turned to UK's Gluck Equine Research Center for help. Robert Holland, a veterinarian and UK veterinary science doctoral student, was asked to develop a pre-race test that would detect the dangerous nasal obstructions. Holland's research on equine respiratory diseases and experience as a racetrack veterinarian for the racing commission made him the logical choice as key researcher.

"The commission wanted a noninvasive, quick test that would not irritate the horse," says Holland, a Maryland native who rode horses in his youth. "It had to be something that two people could run because of the staff situation at the racing commission." The test also had to be ready in six months so it could be used to screen horses in the prep races for the Kentucky Derby and for the Derby itself. "The commission wanted to protect the integrity of racing and were concerned about the situation," Holland says.

Holland told the commission that endoscopy, a test in which a thin tube is inserted into a horse's nostril, was the best way to check for obstructions. But horsemen were concerned scoping would irritate horses, spread infections and possibly injure the animals.

At a veterinary conference in Colorado, Holland found a company eager to help him with the project -- Anesco, Inc., a manufacturer of veterinary anesthesia equipment located just minutes from Lexington in Georgetown, Kentucky. By March, the researchers had built and thoroughly tested the Airflow Measuring Meter, a device that fit all of the commission's requirements. Using the meter, a horse could be tested in about one minute. Made from anesthesia equipment used for humans, the meter cost the commission only $3,000.

According to Thomas Tobin, a Gluck Center veterinarian and faculty member who helped evaluate the meter, the device did not irritate horses in the least. "It was not a problem at all," he says. "It was not uncomfortable because it was not invasive."

The meter, which looks like a gas mask, has cups that fit over each of the horse's nostrils. When a horse exhales, air from each nostril flows through hoses and is measured and compared. If there is a disparity, the horse is checked more thoroughly.

Throughout the spring racing season, the test was used on hundreds of horses, and there were no sponging incidents. Then, about a month after the Derby, the culprit foiled the meter by placing two identical sponges in a horse's breathing passage. The news was terribly discouraging to Holland and others who had worked on the project.

Photo of John Engle, Rob Holland, Wyndee Carter, and Tom Tobin Demonstrating the device which measures airflow output in racehorses are (from left) John Engle, President of Anesco Inc.; Rob Holland, a veterinary science doctoral student at the Gluck Equine Research Center; Wyndee Carter, animal technician, and Tom Tobin, professor of veterinary science, both at the center.

"In the end, we found that two sponges were more difficult to detect," says Holland. But at the same time, the good news was that the presence of the airflow meter forced the sponger to change his tactics.

"The FBI was pleased because it made the person change his method," says Holland. "Placing a sponge up a horse's nose is hard but placing two is harder, takes more time and is easier to detect with an endoscope." Since that incident, the racing commission has been using endoscopy for its pre-race testing. "I had told them that endoscopy is the only way to definitely know," Holland says.

By developing the meter for use before the Derby, the center helped prevent an incident that could have seriously damaged the image of one of the state's most vital and visible industries, an industry that employs from 80,000 to 90,000 people.

"The racing industry benefited greatly from our work," says Tobin. "If the integrity of racing is brought into question, it could have a negative impact on the industry." The project was just one example of the ways in which "the center works closely with the industry to help find technological solutions to problems," says Tobin.