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At least one of the Aquanita eight plans to keep fighting as the five trainers and three stablehands face potentially career-ending penalties over the cheating conspiracy.

Multiple Group One-winning trainer Robert Smerdon and float driver Greg Nelligan potentially face life bans for being key players in the biggest scandal in Australian racing history.

A Victorian tribunal described Smerdon as the driving force behind the conspiracy along with Nelligan, who, although considerably lower down the chain of command, seemed to have been the architect and to some extent the promoter of the top-ups scheme.

The Racing Appeals and Disciplinary Board on Tuesday found all eight people charged were part of the conspiracy, at least from time to time and with varying degrees of involvement.

Queensland trainer Liam Birchley was devastated by the guilty verdict and will appeal, his lawyer Travis Schultz said.

“We strongly believe the stewards did not have sufficient evidence to support their case and Mr Birchley continues to maintain the charges were unsubstantiated,” Schultz said.

He says an appeal will be lodged as soon as the RAD Board hearing concludes.

The three-member board will hear submissions on Thursday before imposing penalties, likely the same day.

The penalties could include disqualification and warning off over what the tribunal said was a long-running systematic conspiracy to try to obtain an unfair advantage in more than 100 races over seven years.

The board said there had been the clearest of breaches of the Australian racing rule in question as it found trainers Smerdon, Birchley, Stuart Webb, Tony Vasil and Trent Pennuto and stable employees Nelligan, his wife Denise and Daniel Garland guilty.

“There has been dishonest, corrupt or fraudulent, improper or dishonourable actions of the highest order,” chair Judge John Bowman said.

Nelligan and Smerdon face the harshest penalties after the driver administered illegal top-ups to horses 123 times over seven years and the trainer was a party to them on 115 occasions.

The Nelligans have already been warned off meaning they cannot set foot on any racecourse or facility relating to racehorses in Victoria.

Smerdon handed in his trainer’s licence in March and ceased being a director and shareholder of management company Aquanita Racing, which had links to all eight people who were found guilty.

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

Queensland racing authorities are understood to be waiting for a penalty to be handed down before making any announcement about Birchley.

RV chief executive Giles Thompson said the issue of penalties was up to the stewards but the offences were very serious and should be penalised appropriately.

“We have measures, penalties at our disposal that can get to life bans and other significant fines as well – that will be considered as all part of the mix.”

The disqualification of any horses will also likely be discussed on Thursday.

 
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