Scandals have intermittently rocked Australia’s horse-racing industry for more than a century, but the stakes today have never been higher.
Wednesday’s arrest and subsequent release of Melbourne Cup-winning trainer Darren Weir, regarded as the country’s leading trainer, has put the national spotlight on racing for the fourth time in less than a decade.
RMIT’s Dr Anthony Bedford, an expert on gambling and match fixing, told The New Daily the raid and arrest would come as a shock to the public because of Weir’s high-profile successes (he trained Prince of Penzance, which won the Melbourne Cup in 2015 with female jockey Michelle Payne).
“The industry has spent a lot of time and energy cleaning itself up and the racing industry was regarded to be quite clean in terms of professionalism, the ability to be audited and to see what’s happening at training headquarters and dealing with vets,” Dr Bedford said.
“The public will be shocked, and what happens next will be interesting.”
Detectives from the Sporting Integrity Intelligence Unit have executed warrants at properties in the Warrnambool and Ballarat areas this morning as part of an ongoing investigation. → https://t.co/ksW2RTQXt5 pic.twitter.com/wSxG8CHOU6
— Victoria Police (@VictoriaPolice) January 29, 2019
While no charges have been laid, the raid of Weir’s Victorian stables and certain residential properties was conducted by Victoria Police’s Sporting Integrity Intelligence Unit as part of an investigation initiated by Victoria Racing.
Police arrested two other men and seized four electric shock devices, also known as “jiggers”, plus a substance reportedly believed to be cocaine.
Racing Victoria (RV) Executive General Manager – Integrity, Jamie Stier, has issued the following statement regarding the execution of warrants this morning by Victoria Police in Warrnambool and Ballarat https://t.co/Ds5sO6o6QG
— Racing Victoria (@RacingInsider) January 29, 2019
It follows a number of recent racing industry shocks including last year’s Aquanita affair, described as Australia’s biggest doping scandal, which involved five trainers and three stablehands for a period spanning seven years.
Eight people, including prominent trainer Robert Smerdon, were found guilty for their involvement in administering sodium bicarbonate to horses before races to reduce build up of lactic acid linked to fatigue, giving the animals a “1 per cent edge”.
The Aquanita crew was also wiping Vicks VapoRub on horses in an unproven attempt to open the airways.
In a separate saga two years earlier, trainers Mark Kavanagh, Peter Moody and Danny O’Brien were disqualified from racing (which was later overturned) for using cobalt – said to be a performance-enhancing substance.
And in 2012, three-time Melbourne Cup-winning jockey Damien Oliver was suspended for 10 months for race-fixing after betting $10,000 on a rival horse to win.
Perhaps the most brazen of horse racing fiascos was the so-called Fine Cotton affair of 1984 in which a younger horse’s legs were painted white to masquerade as the much older Fine Cotton and win the race.
Dr Bedford said illegal practices to gain an advantage in horse racing could range from doping and masking agents to electric shock treatment and collusion on race outcomes.
“Electric shock treatment is horrific and is the same as with dogs where the animals are shocked into running faster by creating fear,” said Dr Bedford
“When they crack the whip with a Taser, it creates a mental association with the whip.”
Dr Bedford said underhanded behaviour was generally fuelled by a desire to earn big prizemoney in industries where average competitors earned little.
“Whether it’s Tasers or drugs, the advantage is that horses will run faster and win more races, which means more money,” Dr Bedford said.
However despite a public perception that doping was common, Victoria Racing said positive detections in racing were “rare” and most cases were the result of medication mismanagement or accidental contamination – not deliberate cheating.
“Nevertheless, although the incidence of doping offences is very low, it is absolutely critical that Racing Victoria maintains a very strong deterrent to cheating,” the agency’s website states.
“Racing Victoria invests considerable resources in technology and procedures to detect doping and to provide an effective deterrent to attempts to cheat.”