Queensland trainer Liam Birchley denies any involvement in giving horses race day treatments or knowing about the allegedly widespread practice that extended to Melbourne Cup runners.
Birchley is the only one of the five trainers and three stablehands charged in the Aquanita case to give evidence or even show up to the Racing Appeals and Disciplinary Board inquiry.
Birchley admitted it looked bad that he asked the person allegedly at the centre of the practice of race day treatments – float driver Greg Nelligan – to organise a “top-up”.
But he maintained it was a common racing term for topping up feed, water or shavings in horses’ boxes.
Racing Victoria stewards allege there was a widespread and brazen practice over seven years of covertly giving horses “top-ups” of sodium bicarbonate on race days among people connected to management company Aquanita Racing at Caulfield.
Much of the stewards’ case is based on seven years of text messages on Nelligan’s mobile phone.
Stewards’ barrister Jeff Gleeson QC, who told the inquiry trainer Robert Smerdon and his stablehand Nelligan had a habit of cheating, said the texts showed those involved talking about top-ups of sodium bicarbonate.
Birchley agreed that seemed to be the case but added “I had no knowledge of that”.
Gleeson said Birchley was suggesting it was just some horrible coincidence that he asked for a top-up when others used the term to mean a top-up of bicarbonate.
“Yes it’s a coincidence. It’s one coincidence,” Birchley said on Tuesday.
A series of texts between Birchley and Nelligan from Cup eve in 2015 began with the trainer asking: “Can u org a top up for tomorrow pls.”
Nelligan replied: “Robert’s ordered 5, I’ll need a wheelbarrow to carry them all.”
Birchley: “You’ve got deep pockets.”
Nelligan: “I’ll be walking funny, got two cup horses as well. Don’t tell Robert.”
Birchley, who told the inquiry he was at a pub drinking at the time and did not remember the text conversation, said he did not know what Nelligan meant.
Gleeson suggested Birchley knew Nelligan’s text meant he was “topping up” two Cup horses, which the trainer denied.
Nelligan’s final text said: “Robert had me do one for the guy with the cup horses a few years ago so it’s not out of the circle of trust but I still don’t tell him.”
Birchley said he did not take any notice of that text nor reply.
“It did not make any sense to me,” he told RAD Board chair Judge John Bowman.
Gleeson suggested Birchley knew the circle of trust referred to a group of people who knew about the practice of administering sodium bicarbonate to horses on race day.
Birchley responded: “Definitely not.”
Five trainers – Smerdon, Birchley, Stuart Webb, Tony Vasil and Trent Pennuto – and three stable employees – Nelligan, his wife Denise and Daniel Garland – were charged under an Australian racing rule dealing with dishonest, corrupt or fraudulent, improper or dishonourable action.
Smerdon and the Nelligans are not participating in the inquiry.
The hearing will resume on Thursday afternoon for closing arguments.