Five horse trainers and three stablehands have been found guilty of doping-related offences by Victoria’s Racing Appeals and Disciplinary Board, after an investigation into one of the biggest horse racing scandals in Australian history.
Trainers Stuart Webb, Tony Vasil, Trent Pennuto and Liam Birchley, and stablehand Daniel Garland had all pleaded not guilty.
Trainer Robert Smerdon reserved his plea, and stablehands Greg and Denise Nelligan entered “no contest” pleas.
Together, they faced 271 charges.
In its findings, the board described the case as “probably the biggest scandal and the most widespread investigation in the history of Australian racing”.
“This was a long-running systematic conspiracy to try and obtain an unfair advantage in well over a hundred races over seven years,” it said.
There has been dishonest, corrupt or fraudulent, improper or dishonourable actions of the highest order.”
Racing Victoria, through lawyer Jeff Gleeson QC, had previously told the board that the eight racing professionals were involved in “knowing, brazen and systematic” doping between 2010 and 2017.
The charges included administering horses with banned race-day treatments, including sodium bicarbonate, or “top-ups”, over the seven-year period.
It can enhance performance by slowing the build-up of lactic acid, so horses can run longer without tiring.
Stablehand caught in box with syringe
Last month, the board saw footage of racing stewards confronting Nelligan as he was allegedly doping a Smerdon-trained horse at Flemington.
The video footage — which the board declined to publicly release — showed Nelligan in a box with the racehorse Lovani and a modified syringe plunger allegedly containing sodium bicarbonate paste concealed in a yellow plastic bag last October.
When officials asked him what he was doing, Nelligan could be heard saying “no one else has got anything to do with it” and claiming the pink paste on Lovani’s mouth and bit is “something I made up … it’s a gel”.
Mr Gleeson told the hearing Nelligan made a “forlorn attempt” to hide the plunger under his clothes.
Nelligan’s phone was then seized by authorities, who used 1000 text messages as evidence that pointed to the varying level of culpability of those involved.
Racing Victoria sends warning
Penalty submissions for the eight people found guilty — who all had links to the Aquanita Racing stable — will be heard on Thursday.
Racing Victoria’s chief executive, Giles Thompson, said the guilty verdicts sent a “very strong signal” to the racing industry.
“All sport, no matter where it is in the world and the type of sport it is, has to be realistic — there are going to be people out there who do try and cheat,” he said.
“What we have to do is make sure that we are putting those resources in, and I think racing in Victoria is at the forefront of this globally.
“I think the participants and those who what to engage in the sport should feel confident that we are doing what we need to do.”
Racing Minister Martin Pakula said it was “a good day for racing” and praised the work of the integrity unit.
“It shows that if you want to do the wrong thing, if you are determined to breach the rules of racing, you will be caught, you will be prosecuted, you will be found guilty,” he said.
He said the outcome was proof the integrity department is well-resourced and operates “without fear or favour”.