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The Aquanita eight have been found guilty over a long-running conspiracy to cheat using “top-ups” in what a judge describes as the biggest scandal in Australian racing history.

Multiple Group One-winning trainer Robert Smerdon was the driving force behind the systematic conspiracy and float driver Greg Nelligan the architect and promoter of the top-ups scheme, Victoria’s Racing Appeals and Disciplinary Board said.

The tribunal found the five trainers and three stable employees charged in the Aquanita case were all part of the conspiracy, at least from time to time and with varying degrees of involvement.

“The Aquanita case represents one of the darkest and longest chapters in the history of Australian turf,” RAD Board chair Judge John Bowman said on Tuesday.

“There is a litany of brazen attempts to cheat and to obtain an unfair advantage over many years by a well organised team.”

The tribunal found trainers Smerdon, Liam Birchley, Stuart Webb, Tony Vasil and Trent Pennuto and stable employees Nelligan, his wife Denise and Daniel Garland clearly breached an Australian racing rule with “dishonest, corrupt or fraudulent, improper or dishonourable actions of the highest order”.

All eight had some connection to management company Aquanita Racing.

Bowman described the case as probably the biggest scandal and 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,” he said.

Nelligan was “literally caught red handed” inserting a syringe into the Smerdon-trained Lovani’s mouth on Turnbull Stakes Day last October, sparking the investigation.

The Racing Victoria stewards’ case relied on 1000 text messages covering seven years among the 70,000 texts downloaded from Nelligan’s mobile phone.

When caught Nelligan said the Lovani administration was his idea and a “one-off” occurrence, but the three-member board said the texts proved that was a lie.

It said the texts left no doubt that all eight people were, to varying degrees, involved in a plan to insert sodium bicarbonate and tripart paste into horses on race day by way of “top-ups” to gain an unfair advantage.

Those charged claimed top-ups referred to feed and water, which the tribunal rejected as nonsense when all the text messages and their timing, particularly on race days, was examined.

Bowman said Denise Nelligan ultimately “blew the whistle” on the whole top-ups saga when she confessed to the contents to stewards.

Birchley was the only one of the eight to give evidence to the inquiry, but the board did not accept him as a witness of truth and found he was a “non-paying customer” of the top-ups service.

Vasil was also found guilty even though there were no text messages to or from him, with the board saying it was very unlikely his foreman Pennuto was off on a frolic of his own.

The board said Pennuto’s involvement in the conspiracy was obvious and Webb was clearly part of the team effort disclosed by “fairly damning” texts.

RV chief executive Giles Thompson said the guilty verdicts send a very strong signal to anyone who thought they could undermine the integrity of the sport by actively breaching the rules of racing.

The RAD Board will hear submissions on Thursday before handing down penalties that could include disqualification and warning off.

WHAT IS THE AQUANITA CASE?

A tribunal labels it probably the biggest scandal and most widespread investigation in Australian racing history.

Victoria’s Racing Appeals and Disciplinary Board found five trainers and three stable employees guilty over race day treatments or “top-ups”.

It found they were, to varying degrees and from time to time, part of a long-running systematic conspiracy to try to obtain an unfair advantage in more than 100 races over seven years.

All were connected to the management company Aquanita Racing at Caulfield.

HOW DID IT UNFOLD?

Aquanita float driver Greg Nelligan was “caught red handed” inserting a syringe in Robert Smerdon-trained Lovani’s mouth on Turnbull Stakes Day last October.

Racing Victoria stewards downloaded more than 70,000 text messages from his mobile phone – about 1000 texts over seven years put in evidence.

Those charged argued “top-ups” actually referred to topping up feed and water, which the RAD Board rejected as nonsense.

WHAT WAS THE CHARGE?

An Australian racing rule dealing with dishonest, corrupt or fraudulent, improper or dishonourable actions.

Penalties are up to RAD Board – include disqualification and warning off.

ROBERT SMERDON

* Multiple Group-One winning trainer; was an Aquanita director and shareholder

* Found guilty of being party to administration of top-ups on 115 occasions (2010-2017)

* RAD Board said Smerdon was driving force behind illegal top-ups conspiracy along with Nelligan, who was considerably lower down the chain of command

* Also found guilty over race day administration of medication for instructing Nelligan to administer Vicks in nose of Disco Dan before a 2010 race

* Surrendered trainer’s licence in March

* Didn’t participate in inquiry

GREG NELLIGAN

* Smerdon’s former stablehand and float driver; also former employee of trainer Tony Vasil

* RAD Board described Nelligan as architect and promoter of top-ups scheme

* Found guilty of administering illegal top-ups to horses on 123 occasions over seven years, almost always on race days and predominantly at metropolitan tracks

* Also found guilty of administering Vicks to Disco Dan’s nose, three counts of laying horses while employed by the trainer and two charges of failing to comply with stewards’ inquiry

* Didn’t participate in RAD Board inquiry

DENISE NELLIGAN

* Greg’s wife; also Smerdon stablehand and former Vasil employee

* Ultimately “blew the whistle” when confessed to stewards top-ups’ contents

* Found guilty over 13 occasions (2011-2017) – found she relayed instructions, made at least some of the top-ups and passed on messages

* Didn’t participate in inquiry

LIAM BIRCHLEY

* Trainer; licensed in Queensland

* Trained under Aquanita banner for 10 years until 2011

* Board found he was a “non-paying customer” of top-ups services

* Found guilty over three occasions when visited Melbourne (2011, 2012 and 2013)

* Only one to attend inquiry and give evidence, but RAD Board did not accept him as a witness of truth

TONY VASIL

* Group One-winning trainer

* Trained under Aquanita banner 2005-2012, then trained out of Aquanita’s stables

* Found guilty over seven occasions (2010-2013)

STUART WEBB

* Group One-winning trainer; Smerdon employee

* Trained out of Aquanita stables; responsible for organising transport of Aquanita horses

* Found guilty over three occasions (two in 2010, one in 2017)

TRENT PENNUTO

* Former trainer; was Vasil’s foreman

* Found guilty over four occasions (2010-2011)

* RAD Board said it was not alleged he had since engaged in ongoing offending, but that didn’t mean his behaviour was not reprehensible and a breach of the rule

DANIEL GARLAND

* Employed by Smerdon or Aquanita as float driver

* Found guilty over two occasions (2011 and 2013).

 
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