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Smerdon in ‘habit of cheating’, board told

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Trainer Robert Smerdon had a habit of cheating an inquiry into alleged raceday treatments has heard.

Group One-winning trainer Robert Smerdon was in the habit of cheating amid a widespread practice of covert race day treatment of horses, an inquiry has heard.

The high-profile inquiry into five trainers and three stablehands connected with Aquanita Racing at Caulfield centres on “top-ups” given to horses on race days over seven years from mid-2010.

Greg Nelligan, Smerdon’s former stablehand and float driver, was allegedly at the centre of the covert administration of bicarbonate to horses on race day using syringes.

Racing Victoria stewards’ barrister Jeff Gleeson QC said it was an extremely widespread and long-standing practice.

“The practice of top-ups among those eight people was knowing, it was brazen and it was systemic,” Gleeson told the Racing Appeals and Disciplinary Board on Monday.

“It was, at least for Smerdon and Nelligan, a habit of cheating.”

Gleeson said there was a disturbing and telling awareness between some of the charged people about what stewards were doing.

“Surveillance of stewards and their activities was a matter of considerable interest to some of the charged persons showing a consciousness of guilt and a desire to avoid being detected.”

The investigation was sparked when stewards caught Nelligan allegedly administering a substance to the Smerdon-trained Lovani, who was then withdrawn from a race at Flemington on October 7 last year.

“You can imagine the surprise and dismay of Nelligan upon realising that he’d been observed,” Gleeson said.

Video played to the tribunal showed Nelligan telling stewards it was “something I made up”.

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Much of the stewards’ evidence comes from seven years of text messages taken from Nelligan’s mobile phone.

Gleeson said the eight charged persons sent, received or were referred to in texts sent by others.

The tribunal heard those involved claimed the references to “top-ups” actually referred to topping up feed or water for the horses, which Gleeson said was simply implausible.

The text messages include references to the Melbourne Cup, although it is not clear which horses allegedly received treatments.

Gleeson read texts between trainer Liam Birchley and Nelligan on Cup eve in 2015, during which the float driver notes: “got two cup horses as well. Don’t tell Robert.”

Nelligan later adds: “Robert had me do one for the guy with the cup horses a couple of years ago so it’s not out of the circle of trust but I still don’t tell him.”

The tribunal heard Nelligan’s wife Denise, also a registered stablehand, initially denied any knowledge of “top-ups” before making “reluctant but damning concessions” to stewards.

Smerdon, who handed in his trainer’s licence ahead of the hearing, and the Nelligans are among eight people charged under an Australian racing rule dealing with dishonest, corrupt or fraudulent, improper or dishonourable action.

The allegations against Greg Nelligan and Smerdon number more than 100 occasions between 2010 and 2017.

Among the others charged are trainers Birchley, Stuart Webb and Tony Vasil who, like Smerdon, have all at some time operated under the banner of management company, Aquanita Racing.

Bicarbonate is used to help prevent the build-up of lactic acid but cannot be administered within one clear day of a horse racing.

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