Not only was 1934 the height of the Great Depression and the year FDR repealed Prohibition, but it was also a year of massive changes in Thoroughbred racing. During preceding decades, bookies in New York State had been barred from doing business within the track. Due to a change in regulations, bookies flooded back onto the grounds to make their money where the getting was good—among the fans of what was by far the most popular sport in the country.
Bookies who paid off a jockey to throw a race or doped horses to impair performance were commonplace. However, a lesser known way of influencing the outcome of a race was called “sponging”. Sponging entails taking a sponge the size of a skate wheel and shoving it deep into a horse’s nostril. This prevents a Thoroughbred from breathing well, which results in poor oxygenation, causing the horse to run more slowly. The jockey need not know a thing and all drug testing comes out negative.
Although sponging usually does not harm the horse long-term, many instances resulted in infection, respiratory complications, or death, not to mention a loss of confidence in the Sport of Kings. Despite today’s higher vigilance and improved detection technologies, as long as there is money to be made or an edge to be found, people will continue to try to fix races.
Eric Luper is the author of the novel Bug Boy, which focuses on horse racing at Saratoga in the 1930s. Visit his website at www.ericluper.com or his blog located here.