Monday, May 5, 2008

Larry Jones Filly Follies? Police Investigate Maren's Meadow Sponging Incident; Jones & Jockey Gabriel Saez Face Doubts Over Eight Belles Derby Death

As controversy erupts over the sudden, mysterious collapse of Kentucky Derby second-place winner Eight Belles, another mystery still haunts trainer Larry Jones' barn. Filly Maren's Meadow, who could have been a contender for the Kentucky Oaks, last fall was the victim of something called "sponging," which effectively sidelined her away from crucial training and conditioning time.

In sponging, a cruel and illegal form of hurting horses and tampering with racing outcomes, someone literally shoves a sponge up a horse's nose to interfere with the horse's breathing. This causes excruciating pain and lack of oxygen during workouts and races. Sponging usually takes two people, one to hold the horse, the other to shove the sponge up the nose, veterinarian Keith Soring said earlier this year.

Maren's Meadow was living in Jones' barn, under his care, at Delaware Park in Wilmington, Del. The facility has 24-hour-a-day security guards.

Jones sent the horse to a vet after she ran poorly in one race and had mucus drain from her nose. Surgery revealed that someone had shoved a round section of sponge about two inches by three inches up Maren's Meadows' nose.

The Delaware Park incident is under investigation by the Delaware State Police, the Delaware Racing Commission, and the Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau. No arrests have yet been made, and police are regarding it as a race-fixing crime.

Maren's Meadow and her usual jockey Gabriel Saez --also Eight Belles' jockey--is back on the racetrack. On March 22, she won the Bourbonette Stakes at Kentucky's Turfway Park.

But she didn't get her shot at the Kentucky Oaks. Another Jones-Saez filly, Proud Spell, handily took that race the day before the Kentucky Derby. The next day, Eight Belles, with Saez aboard, shattered multiple bones after the race and was euthanized on the track in front of horrified race-goers and international television.

This year, Jones fielded three top fillies: Eight Belles, Proud Spell, and Maren's Meadow. In March, Jones was blunt about his plan for Maren's Meadow: "..stay away from our other two (Proud Spell and Eight Belles) who are on the Oaks path."

Jones said he made a last-minute decision before the Derby to move Eight Belles from the shorter, female-only Oaks to the Triple Crown opening race because Proud Spell had a good chance of winning the Oaks. "The only reason Eight Belles is running in the Derby was because we felt like we had a really good shot of winning the Oaks without her," Jones said.

Sponging, an old racetracks nasty bit of business,is known to have occurred in Kentucky and New Mexico in the 1990's.The New Mexico incident led to the five-year suspension of a trainer. In 2001, horses were reportedly sponged at California's Santa Anita racetrack.

Jones laughed off Maren's Meadows' dangerous trauma. As she returned to racing, he guffawed "I put in for a change of equipment -- sponge out."

Jones now is defending Saez, his favored jockey. He also defended the Churchill Downs staff who tended to Eight Belles and who euthanized her.

In his statements, Jones created some neat bundling and a master bit of spin to lump together Churchill Downs staff and Saez as though they were one entity, or as though the issues were related. They're not.

In fact, we didn't know that the Churchill Downs staff, who acted impeccably--especially in Jones' absence on the track--needed defending. Saez, however, is another matter. Word is that Jones may hold a press conference Tuesday to discuss the handling and death of Eight Belles.

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