Queensland trainer Liam Birchley denies being involved in giving horses race day treatments or knowing about a “circle of trust” of people behind the practice that allegedly extended to Melbourne Cup runners.
Racing Victoria stewards allege horses were given “top-ups” of bicarbonate over seven years, charging five trainers and three stablehands connected to management company Aquanita Racing at Caulfield.
Birchley admitted it looked bad that he asked the person allegedly at the centre of the practice – float driver Greg Nelligan – to organise a “top-up”.
But he said it was a common racing term that referred to topping up feed, water or shavings in horses’ boxes.
“There wouldn’t be a stable in the country that didn’t use the term,” Birchley told Victoria’s Racing Appeals and Disciplinary Board on Tuesday.
Stewards’ barrister Jeff Gleeson QC asked Birchley if it was just some horrible coincidence that he texted Nelligan and asked for a top-up when those involved in the practice used the phrase in a different context.
Birchley replied: “That’s my belief, yes.”
A series of texts between Birchley and Nelligan, who worked for now-former trainer Robert Smerdon, from Cup eve in 2015 began with the trainer asking: “Can u org a top up for tomorrow pls.”
Birchley agreed with Gleeson that it looked bad.
“I can see why it’s being investigated and I agree 100 per cent,” he said.
Nelligan texted back to Birchley: “Robert’s ordered 5, I’ll need a wheelbarrow to carry them all.”
Birchley: “You’ve got deep pockets.”
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Nelligan: “I’ll be walking funny, got two cup horses as well. Don’t tell Robert.”
Birchley told the inquiry he did not know what Nelligan meant.
“I don’t recall the conversation.”
Gleeson suggested Birchley knew Nelligan’s text meant he was “topping up” two Cup horses.
The trainer said: “No, not at all.”
In the November 2015 texts, Nelligan went on to say: “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.”
Asked about that text, Birchley said he did not take any notice of it.
Gleeson said: “You knew the circle of trust is a reference to a group of people who knew about the practice of administering sodium bicarbonate to horses on race day.”
Birchley: “Definitely not.”
Birchley said he had never administered a medication, alkalinising agent or a prohibited substance to a horse on a race day.
He also told the inquiry he never asked anyone to do so nor was a party to it.
Birchley, Smerdon, Nelligan and five others were charged under an Australian racing rule dealing with dishonest, corrupt or fraudulent, improper or dishonourable action.
Stewards allege Birchley was a party to the administration on three occasions during the 2011, 2012 and 2015 Melbourne spring carnival.