Aquanita Eight found guilty in racing’s biggest scandal
EIGHT racing figures, including Group 1-winning trainers Robert Smerdon, Tony Vasil and Stuart Webb have been found guilty of doping by the Racing Appeals and Disciplinary Board.
In delivering his verdict on Tuesday Judge John Bowman gave a withering summary, describing the case as "probably the biggest scandal in the history of Australian racing".
All eight people involved were found guilty of dishonest, corrupt or fraudulent, improper or dishonourable action over alleged systematic race day treatment.
Trainers Liam Birchley, Smerdon, Vasil, Webb and Trent Pennuto and stablehands Greg and Denise Nelligan and Daniel Garland all were previously associated with the now defunct Aquanita Racing.
The group faced a total of 271 charges arising from investigations following the alleged race day treatment of Lovani at Flemington last October.
The period of offending stretched from 2010-17.
They will be sentenced later this week, pending submissions from legal counsel.
Lengthy disqualifications or warnings off all Australian racecourses are likely to apply in some instances.
Judge Bowman said he was satisfied the eight accused were part of a "long-running, systematic conspiracy to try and gain an unfair advantage."
"It is the clearest of breaches," Judge Bowman said, adding elements of the conspiracy were evidence of a "team effort."
Judge Bowman described Smerdon, along with Greg Nelligan, as the "driving force" behind the doping ring, which used sodium bicarbonate "top-ups" between 2010-17.
The "top-ups" were often administered minutes before races, occasionally in Group 1 contests.
Stewards suspect the 2015 Melbourne Cup might have been compromised after Nelligan revealed he had been asked to treat "two Cup horses."
The tribunal found Racing Victoria stewards had proved references to "top-ups" in hundreds of text messages meant doping - not, as the defendants claimed, insturctions around feeding, watering or bed shavings.
The RAD Board sat last week for just three days after only one of the eight charged, Birchley, took the stand to be cross-examined.
Birchley signalled his intention to appeal, with his lawyer, Travis Schultz, saying the Queensland trainer was devastated about Tuesday's ruling and would continue to "vigorously defend the charges" against him.
"It's unfortunate ― and unexpected ― that the RAD Board has ruled their decision this way," 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.
"He has worked in the industry for more than 35 years and the welfare of his horses has always been his highest priority.
"Throughout his long career, Mr Birchley has never been charged with use of any illegal substance or race day treatment of a horse under his care. His record is unblemished.
"My client has instructed me to continue to vigorously defend the charges and we look forward to lodging an appeal as soon as this hearing concludes."
The tribunal is expected to resume on Thursday after taking submissions on penalty.
The Aquanita investigation was triggered after Greg Nelligan was caught allegedly using a modified syringe to traet Smerdon's mare Lovani in a horse urinal at Flemington on October 7.
Analysis of the paste extracted from the plunger contained sodium bicarbonate, Tripart and Formaldehyde.
Nelligan claimed he was acting alone but thousands of texts in his mobile phone implicated others, providing investigators with a goldmine of evidence.
Denise Nelligan admitted to stewards she knew the "top-ups" contained sodium bicarbonate and other substances.
Greg Nelligan, Aquanita Racing stablehand, 123 counts of alleged race-day treatment from June 26, 2010 to October 7, 2017, 3 counts of laying horses to lose, illegal use of medication and refusing to comply with stewards' request and failing to cooperate with an investigation.
Robert Smerdon, Aquanita Racing trainer, 116 counts of alleged race-day treatment from June 26, 2010 to October 7, 2017.
Denise Nelligan, Aquanita Racing office employee, 13 counts of being party to alleged race day treatment between February 24, 2011 and February 25, 2017.
Tony Vasil, former Aquanita Racing trainer, seven counts of alleged race-day treatment from December 26, 2010 to June 7, 2013.
Trent Pennuto, disqualified Mornington trainer, four counts of alleged race-day treatment from August 22, 2010 to December 9, 2011.
Stuart Webb, Aquanita Racing trainer, three counts of alleged race-day treatment from December 26, 2010 to April 28, 2017.
Liam Birchley, Brisbane trainer, three counts of alleged race-day treatment from November 3, 2011 to November 3, 2015.
Daniel Garland, Aquanita Racing stablehand, two counts of alleged race-day treatment from November 3, 2011 to May 25, 2013.