03/03/2008 1:00AM

Sponge found in mare after Gulf stakes win

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - A state agency has been conducting an investigation since a sponge was detected in the nostrils of Golden Velvet several days after she dead-heated for first with Lady Marlboro in the Grade 3 Sabin Handicap on Jan. 6, Gulfstream Park officials and trainer Kiaran McLaughlin both confirmed Monday.

McLaughlin said the sponge was discovered after Golden Velvet's groom reported a strong odor emanating from the mare, the result of an infection that had developed from a sponge being place in one of her sinus cavities.

"Originally we thought she might have a tooth abscess, but after the vet fished around up there he found the deteriorating sponge lodged in one of her sinus passages," said McLaughlin, who trains Golden Velvet for Darley Stable. "He did feel the area the sponge was located probably did not inhibit her breathing during the running of the Sabin, and as a result I think she was still able to run her best race."

Golden Velvet was the second betting choice at 2-1 in the Sabin.

Bill Murphy, Gulfstream president and general manager, said the matter is currently under investigation by the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation. Sponging horses, a felony, usually is an indication of someone attempting to sabotage a horse's chances in a race by inhibiting its ability to breathe.

"The integrity of this sport is extremely important to all of us in the industry," said Murphy. "No compromises will be made in the investigation as we strive to protect the impeccable, better-than-70-year reputation this racetrack has earned and maintained."

McLaughlin said Golden Velvet has recovered from the incident, is training well, and that he expects she will run well in Sunday's Grade 2 Rampart Handicap.

"This whole thing is like having your house broken into and invaded," McLaughlin said. "It makes you feel like you've been violated."

McLaughlin said he does employ a night watchman at his barn, but that Golden Velvet's stall is located in an area that's tough to patrol.

"She's in a weird place at the end of the barn, hidden from everything, although whoever did this had to be very sharp to locate her and commit this act without being discovered," said McLaughlin.

The Delaware State Police investigated a similar incident in which a small sponge was discovered to have been inserted into the nose of Maren's Meadow, a 2-year-old filly, who finished third as the 4-5 favorite in a race at Delaware Park Oct. 16.