Sponging Suspect Served Time In Fanfreluche Theft

The man who was found guilty and served a prison sentence in connection with the theft of the champion mare Fanfreluche in 1977 has been charged in connection with at least three sponging incidents at Kentucky racetracks in 1996 and '97.

An indictment returned by a federal grand jury in Louisville on May 4 charged William Michael McCandless with trying to affect the outcome of races for gambling purposes. McCandless, 51, of Hendersonville, Tenn., is scheduled to appear before a federal magistrate in Louisville on May 19. He faces a maximum 30 years in prison, a $1.5 million fine, and three years' supervised release if convicted of the charges.

According to the indictment, McCandless engaged in interstate commerce “with the intent to tamper with one or more horses at Churchill Downs by inserting a sponge or sponges into the nasal passages of one or more horses that ran in the fourth race on May 30, 1996, the fourth race on June 8, 1997, and the first race on June 14, 1997.” The indictment stated that McCandless' actions were an attempt “to adversely affect performance so as to gain an advantage in gambling on the outcome of the races.”

The actions allegedly committed by McCandless “caused the transmission of wire, radio, and television communications in interstate commerce when the betting odds for those races were simulcast to racetracks in other states.”

McCandless previously had been convicted and sentenced to serve four years in prison stemming from the theft of Fanfreluche from Claiborne Farm on June 25, 1977. The North American champion 3-year-old filly and Canadian Horse of the Year was taken while in foal to Secretariat. The mare was discovered eight months later on a farm in Tompkinsville, Ky.

Federal authorities conducted a four-year search for McCandless after he was initially charged with Fanfreluche's theft. McCandless, who denied any involvement with the mare's theft, was convicted in connection with the case while in prison serving a federal sentence for his alleged part in an interstate truck theft ring.

Although he had been licensed to work at Kentucky tracks in the mid-1970s, McCandless was not licensed at the time the indictments were returned in the sponging cases.

The charges against McCandless are the first to be filed in Kentucky since the sponging incidents began. A trainer in New Mexico was suspended earlier this year in connection with a sponging incident there. In Kentucky, a total of 10 horses were determined to have been tampered with by having sponges inserted into their nostrils.

The sponging cases led to new policies under which every horse that starts in the state undergoes a test to determine if sponges are present in the horse's nostrils. There was also a $50,000 reward being offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for the sponging.

Earlier this year, the Kentucky General Assembly tightened state laws to make it a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison for tampering with a horse. Previously, horse tampering was a misdemeanor under state animal cruelty laws.

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