The sorry scandal that has erupted over the doping mess involving Aquanita stables and others has more layers than the proverbial onion. As more and more revelations come out, the situation becomes more and more disturbing, and, in a way, more and more ridiculous.
Firstly, let’s think about the sheer stupidity of it all. These clowns were so arrogant that they left a trail, not of crumbs, but of entire loaves of bread! There is clearly enough damning evidence on the mobile phones of the people charged to suggest that following the usual course of justice and proceedings in cases like this will simply be a total waste of time and resources. The SMS messages alone leave absolutely no doubt about what was going on, and absolutely no doubt about who was involved at the core. To put it very bluntly, Robert Smerdon, Stuart Webb, Trent Pennuto, Greg Nelligan – and all of the others charged – have been totally nailed, not only because they were caught, but because they were dumb enough to keep the evidence for years. The only sensible thing for them now, let alone the only decent thing, is to admit to it all, spell it all out in chapter and verse, and take their punishment.
Secondly, there are serious questions about the management of this whole affair from the integrity angle. Racing is a funny game in some ways, and one of those ways is that there are always rumours about one or other trainer when a stable has a run of success that seems to be a bit unusual. But rumours are one thing, knowledge is another. In this case, it is very clear that the offences being investigated go back to 2010. Are we expected to believe that all of the over 100 instances in which Smerdon and Nelligan are alleged to be involved only came to the knowledge of Racing Victoria’s integrity team when Nelligan was caught “topping up” Lovani in October of last year? Are we expected to believe that, over 7 years, and in over 100 instances, there was no indication that something was going on? It takes time to tube a horse with bicarb, and it’s not a subtle process. Did it take seven years for Nelligan to be tumbled tubing a horse on a raceday? Really, there are too many questions that have not yet been answered, and the first one should be directed at the integrity team and the way that raceday surveillance is carried out. It’s all well and good for the administrators to claim that they have made significant investments in integrity services, but it’s got to be remembered that these people currently under charges got away with rorting the system for seven long years. Someone from the integrity team, or racing administration, has to explain how that happened.
Then there is the fascinating development of a “happy snap” of some Caulfield trainers doing lunch at a seafood restaurant in Melbourne that has hit the social media recently. Nothing wrong with that, surely. But here’s the thing. That happy snap included Robert Smerdon and Stuart Webb, and it was taken after the charges were laid. Now, were it me, and if I felt that I had been systematically cheated by another trainer over years and years, I’d be much more likely to hang one on his jaw than to spend a convivial lunch sharing lobster and chardonnay with him. It has to be remembered that this wasn’t an inadvertent slip up in the timing of a drug that’s legal to use except on raceday. This was blatant rorting of the level playing field with a substance that has only one purpose – to block the pain barrier illegally. It might have been a happy snap, but it was certainly not a good look for the trainers or the industry. How can the trainers who have not been charged justify their apparent social acceptance of others who have, allegedly, been cheating them – and effectively robbing them – for years?
Liam Birchley’s situation is another worry. He was charged in Victoria, and has “agreed” not to race horses in Victoria while the case is pending. Surely he should have been told that he can’t race horses in Victoria while the case is pending. Yet Queensland stewards are allowing Birchley to race horses in Queensland on the basis that he was charged in Victoria, not Queensland. I know things are a little different in the Sunshine State, but isn’t that a bit disingenuous? Isn’t that saying that it’s OK to be dodgy, as long as you do it somewhere else.
There is another concern. It is sadly true that, as in any industry, there are people in racing that mistreat the assets. In racing, the majority of participants are genuine horse people, horse lovers if you prefer, and the horses are the primary assets. The top stables get to be that way, and stay that way, by the trainers demanding consistently high standards of horsemanship and horse care right across their staff. They win races by treating the horses excellently and training them properly. Their horses win because they have been taken to peak fitness, they have been taught to race, and they have been placed in the right races. They don’t need to be given artificial aids to take them temporarily past their natural ability. They don’t need to be mistreated to perform. Whichever way you want to cut it, tubing a horse with bicarb is mistreating the animal. To be party to doing that to over 100 horses over seven years is despicable.
So, what do we hope for out of all of this?
For me, it’s simple. Those charged need to front a hearing as soon as that is possible. When they get there, they need to stay away from any legal twisting, tell it all, and acknowledge that they no longer have any place in racing. Racing administration then needs to stop justifying an integrity system that hasn’t worked, “clean house” and get an integrity system that will stop such blatant and systematic rorting.
Until that happens, Victorian racing has a black eye.