A brazen and long-running conspiracy to cheat could end the careers of the five trainers and three stablehands involved in the biggest scandal in Australian racing history.
The Aquanita eight were all found guilty over the illegal race day treatments, largely because of 1000 messages about “top-ups” among the 70,000 texts downloaded from float driver Greg Nelligan’s mobile phone after he was “caught red-handed” last October.
A Victorian tribunal described trainer Robert Smerdon as the driving force behind the conspiracy along with Nelligan, who, although considerably lower down the chain of command, seemed to have been the architect and to some extent the promoter of the top-ups scheme.
The Racing Appeals and Disciplinary Board found all eight people charged were 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.”
Bowman described the case as probably the biggest scandal and most widespread investigation in Australian racing history.
“This was a long running, systematic conspiracy to try and obtain an unfair advantage in well over a hundred races over seven years.”
The tribunal found trainers Smerdon, Stuart Webb, Tony Vasil, Liam Birchley 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”.
It said text messages left no doubt that all eight were, to varying degrees, involved in a plan to give horses sodium bicarbonate and tripart paste on race day by way of top-ups to gain an unfair advantage.
All had links to management company Aquanita Racing.
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The RAD Board will hear submissions on Thursday before handing down penalties which could include disqualification and warning off.
Nelligan and Smerdon face the harshest penalties after the driver administered illegal top-ups to horses 123 times over seven years and the trainer was a party to them on 115 occasions.
Smerdon handed in his trainer’s licence in March and neither he nor the Nelligans participated in the inquiry.
Birchley was the only one of the eight to give evidence, 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.
Birchley’s lawyer Travis Schultz said the Queensland trainer was understandably devastated and would appeal.
The investigation was sparked when Nelligan was caught inserting a syringe into the Smerdon-trained Lovani’s mouth on Turnbull Stakes Day last October.
Nelligan told stewards the Lovani administration was his idea and a “one-off”, but the RAD Board said the seven years of text messages proved that was a lie.
Those charged claimed top-ups referred to feed and water, which the tribunal rejected as nonsense in light of all the texts and their timing, particularly on race days.
Bowman said Denise Nelligan ultimately “blew the whistle” on the whole saga when she confessed to the top-ups’ contents to stewards.
Vasil was found guilty even though there were no texts to or from him, with the board saying it was highly 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 sent a strong message to the small minority who try to breach the racing rules.