The float driver at the centre of the Aquanita race day treatments case is an untruthful self-promoter who made absurd claims about giving “top-ups” to Melbourne Cup runners, a tribunal has heard.
Racing Victoria stewards maintain all eight people charged in the case, who include former trainer Robert Smerdon and his stablehand Greg Nelligan, knew they were cheating by giving horses “top-ups” of sodium bicarbonate on race days.
While Smerdon, Nelligan and his wife Denise are not participating in the inquiry, lawyers for the remainder argue Victoria’s Racing Appeals and Disciplinary Board should clear their clients.
Barrister Patrick Wheelahan said trainer Tony Vasil did not know about the top-ups and was only mentioned in text messages between unreliable and untruthful witnesses, being the Nelligans.
Wheelahan questioned why other trainers were not charged as he argued to debunk the so-called “circle of trust” of those involved in the practice, which he said was only referred to in a couple of the 17,000 text messages over seven years taken from Greg Nelligan’s mobile.
Texts from Cup eve in 2015 show Nelligan stating he had “two cup horses as well” and “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”.
Queensland trainer Liam Birchley admitted his initial text asking Nelligan to organise a top-up looked bad but denied any involvement in or knowledge of horses being given race day treatments, saying the common racing term referred to topping up feed or water.
His barrister Michael Grant-Taylor questioned how the practice could have gone undetected on Melbourne Cup day, the biggest race day of the year, at Flemington Racecourse, “the jewel of Australian racing”.
“It simply beggars belief,” he told the tribunal on Thursday.
Lawyer Tim McHenry, for trainer Stuart Webb and truck driver Daniel Garland, also questioned the credibility of the Nelligans, saying Greg Nelligan absolutely loved to embellish his role.
“He sees himself as a cowboy taking on the administration, as a successful villain who I think at one stage expresses that it ‘keeps him alive’,” McHenry said.
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“The assertions that he makes about doing horses on Cup day, that’s two separate Melbourne Cup days, is tritely absurd.
“It’s a nonsense and it’s an example of Nelligan self-promoting himself without any regard for the truth.”
Stewards’ barrister Jeff Gleeson QC said Nelligan was caught in the act giving the Smerdon-trained Lovani a “top-up” last October.
“It’s not often that the person alleged to be involved in dishonest, cheating conduct is caught with the smoking gun in his hand.”
Gleeson said the game was over when Nelligan’s wife Denise gave up the actual meaning of the code word to stewards – a “top-up” of sodium bicarbonate and tripart.
The inquiry heard she tried to retract what she told stewards.
Gleeson said people with important and privileged positions in racing were “firing off texts about just how clever they are in getting away with this practice of cheating”.
He said stewards had a very strong case against the eight, who were connected to management company Aquanita Racing at Caulfield.
“The participants knew they were cheating,” Gleeson said.
The eight, who also include trainer Trent Pennuto, were charged under an Australian racing rule dealing with dishonest, corrupt or fraudulent, improper or dishonourable action.
The RAD Board will likely hand down its verdicts on Tuesday.