The Aquanita eight have been found guilty over a long-running conspiracy to cheat using “top-ups” in what a judge describes as the biggest scandal in Australian racing history.
Multiple Group One-winning trainer Robert Smerdon was the driving force behind the systematic conspiracy and float driver Greg Nelligan the architect and promoter of the top-ups scheme, Victoria’s Racing Appeals and Disciplinary Board said.
The tribunal found the five trainers and three stable employees charged in the Aquanita case were all part of the conspiracy, at least from time to time and with varying degrees of involvement.
“The Aquanita case represents one of the darkest and longest chapters in the history of Australian turf,” RAD Board chair Judge John Bowman said on Tuesday.
“There is a litany of brazen attempts to cheat and to obtain an unfair advantage over many years by a well organised team.”
The tribunal found trainers Smerdon, Liam Birchley, Stuart Webb, Tony Vasil and Trent Pennuto and stable employees Nelligan, his wife Denise and Daniel Garland clearly breached an Australian racing rule with “dishonest, corrupt or fraudulent, improper or dishonourable actions of the highest order”.
All eight had some connection to management company Aquanita Racing.
Bowman described the case as probably the biggest scandal and most widespread investigation in the history of Australian racing.
“This was a long running, systematic conspiracy to try and obtain an unfair advantage in well over a hundred races over seven years,” he said.
Nelligan was “literally caught red handed” inserting a syringe into the Smerdon-trained Lovani’s mouth on Turnbull Stakes Day last October, sparking the investigation.
The Racing Victoria stewards’ case relied on 1000 text messages covering seven years among the 70,000 texts downloaded from Nelligan’s mobile phone.
When caught Nelligan said the Lovani administration was his idea and a “one-off” occurrence, but the three-member board said the texts proved that was a lie.
It said the texts left no doubt that all eight people were, to varying degrees, involved in a plan to insert sodium bicarbonate and tripart paste into horses on race day by way of “top-ups” to gain an unfair advantage.
Those charged claimed top-ups referred to feed and water, which the tribunal rejected as nonsense when all the text messages and their timing, particularly on race days, was examined.
Bowman said Denise Nelligan ultimately “blew the whistle” on the whole top-ups saga when she confessed to the contents to stewards.
Birchley was the only one of the eight to give evidence to the inquiry, but the board did not accept him as a witness of truth and found he was a “non-paying customer” of the top-ups service.
Vasil was also found guilty even though there were no text messages to or from him, with the board saying it was very unlikely his foreman Pennuto was off on a frolic of his own.
The board said Pennuto’s involvement in the conspiracy was obvious and Webb was clearly part of the team effort disclosed by “fairly damning” texts.
RV chief executive Giles Thompson said the guilty verdicts send a very strong signal to anyone who thought they could undermine the integrity of the sport by actively breaching the rules of racing.
The RAD Board will hear submissions on Thursday before handing down penalties that could include disqualification and warning off.