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Former trainer Robert Smerdon has been disqualified for life along with his ex-employees Greg and Denise Nelligan after being found guilty in the Aquanita race day treatments case.

Judge John Bowman handed down the Racing Appeals and Disciplinary Board penalties on Thursday with the three among eight people disqualified.

Trainer Stuart Webb has been banned for four years, Tony Vasil for three years, Trent Pennuto for two years, Liam Birchley for one year and stablehand Daniel Garland for one year.

Racing Victoria counsel Jeff Gleeson had earlier called for a $100,000 fine for Smerdon on top of his life disqualification while requesting a minimum five year disqualification for Webb, Vasil, Pennuto, Birchley and Garland.

Bowman said the Board would await a written submission from Smerdon’s counsel Tim McHenry with supporting financial documentation before ruling on a fine.

The Board gave McHenry seven days to lodge the submission after which stewards will have three days to respond.

The Aquanita Eight were charged in January following an investigation stemming from Nelligan’s alleged attempt to give Lovani an oral paste at Flemington at Flemington on October 7 last year.

Bowman said the penalties imposed reflected the gravity of what had been described as one of the darkest chapters in Australian racing history.

He said all eight 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” so as to gain what was thought to be an unfair advantage.

“All eight had an association with Aquanita which also included a director,” Bowman said.

In handing down his penalty to Smerdon, Bowman said he was the leading trainer, the most prominent trainer of the Aquanita Group and also a director of the management company.

Smerdon was given the life ban after being found guilty of engaging in a practice that was dishonest, corrupt or fraudulent, improper or dishonourable on 115 occasions.

“There was effectively a hierarchical ladder,” Bowman said.

Bowman described Greg Nelligan as being down the ladder but the promoter of the scheme.

Like Smerdon he was disqualified for life for dishonest, corrupt or fraudulent, improper of dishonourable practice on 123 occasions.

Stewards downloaded 70,000 messages from Nelligan’s phone, 1000 of which they relied on in evidence.

Bowman said Denise Nelligan “encouraged the top-ups” and while bringing down the sordid tale when interviewed by stewards she eventually reneged while Webb, who was Smerdon’s foreman and a licensed trainer, issued instructions while also ordering “top-ups” for his own horses.

Bowman described Vasil’s record as far from perfect in disqualifying him for two years while Pennuto was Vasil’s foreman between 2010 and 2011 when Vasil was requesting “top-ups”.

Garland was described by Bowman as being well down the hierarchy of command but was a member of the “top-up team, albeit a nervous one”.

“He must be regarded as an offender though,” Bowman said.

Queensland-based Birchley was a member of the Aquanita stable until 2011 but raced horses in Melbourne during the spring between 2011 and 2015.

“While not a member of the team, he requested top-ups, the last of which was on Melbourne Cup day,” Bowman said.

“Mr Birchley has an unblemished record and with 60 horses in training a period of disqualification will hit him hard.”

All parties have 28 days to lodge appeals to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal.

After Tuesday’s guilty findings by the RAD Board, Birchley, through his lawyer Travis Schutz, indicated he would be appealing.

 
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