Integrity or idiocy?…By Rob Young

Why is it that Victoria seems to be the home of racing’s biggest scandals?

We haven’t even finished with the cobalt debacle, then the elevated TCO2 case with Mark Riley, and now we have the cases surrounding Robert Smerdon, Stuart Webb, Liam Birchley, Tony Vasil, Trent Pennuto and others over alleged raceday treatments and the allegations that Smerdon’s float driver, Greg Nelligan, was laying the stable’s horses as well as giving raceday treatments.

The cobalt case against Danny O’Brien and Mark Kavanagh is still going – more than three years since it started! That’s simply because Racing Victoria hasn’t been able to put together a sufficiently competent case to get through the appeals processes of formally constituted courts, even though they have been successful in having charges upheld by the less legally formal RAD Board. There can be only one reason for that. The homework wasn’t done well enough, and that has to sheet home to the way that stewards conducted their inquiries and built their cases.

And so we move on to the latest saga.

The basic issues are quite clear and simple. Rule 178E (1) says that no person may, without the permission of stewards, cause any medication to be administered to a horse on a race day prior to that horse running in a race.  Rule 175A says that it is dishonest, corrupt or fraudulent, improper or dishonourable to be a party to the administration of alkalinizing agents and/or medications to a horse or horses on raceday. Difficult to misinterpret those two, wouldn’t you say?

But it must be, because stewards have laid charges involving the raceday treatment of horses by multiple trainers going back over a period of seven years. There are some 271 alleged breaches, and 115 of them relate to Robert Smerdon.

The biggest question in my mind is simply this – if the charges go back seven years, why hasn’t Smerdon been “pinged” before now?

Were the stewards aware of raceday treatments in the Smerdon stable during that seven-year time slot? And, if they were, why wasn’t action taken until now? It seems that the current charges are based on the history found in a mobile phone confiscated from Nelligan when the RV Integrity Team found him about to treat the Smerdon-trained Lovani with a syringe on Turnbull Stakes Day last year. The allegation is that the syringe contained sodium bicarbonate, a “milkshake” and the same offence that dropped Mark Riley in it.

OK, I can understand that phones have logs. But Turnbull Stakes Day was 7 October – over three months back. How can it take more than three months to review a phone log and come to the conclusion that something “suss” was going on?

Maybe the stewards have become a bit “gun shy” and wanted to build watertight cases. That’s understandable, but it gets almost laughable when you go into the details of some of the charges and see that one of the charges against Nelligan is that he administered Vicks VapoRub to the nose of Disco Dan at Bendigo on 8 October last year. Really, did the stewards on duty at Bendigo that day have a cold as well and had Vicks on their hankies? How close do you have to be to a horse in the mounting yard to smell Vicks. The bloody stuff reeks!

Racing Victoria says that their “primary objective is to protect the integrity of the sport and to enforce the Australian Rules of Racing, ensuring a level playing field for all and the health and welfare of all horses competing in Victoria thoroughbred races”. That’s all well and good. But maybe there needs to be a bit of introspective thinking happening as well.

For example, why isn’t a senior racing administrator asking some questions about how the current charges took seven years to surface? Let me state right now that nothing, absolutely nothing, can be totally hidden in racing for seven years. There are simply too many people involved, and today’s secret is always tomorrow’s news.

It is simply unbelievable that nobody on the Stewards Panel in Victoria had any suspicion about raceday treatments happening in the Smerdon yards, or any of the other yards, for that matter. The fact that Nelligan was spotted with a syringe in the tie up stalls simply talks to the fact that it wasn’t an unusual practice, and that he didn’t expect to be seen. That poses some questions about the level of raceday vigilance, surely.

The bottom line is that the way the Stewards Panel operates in Victoria needs a thorough shake-up before Racing Victoria’s lofty statement of principle can have a hope of being achieved!

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