By: Andrew Eddy
Danny O’Brien’s drawn-out cobalt saga could be costing the Flemington trainer as much as $6 million a year in lost training fees, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal heard on Monday.
After 17 days of the appeal taken up by evidence called by Racing Victoria, the defence for O’Brien and fellow Flemington trainer Mark Kavanagh finally got underway late in the afternoon when O’Brien spent about 50 minutes on the stand.
As part of his evidence to VCAT president Justice Greg Garde, O’Brien confirmed his stable numbers have fallen from nearly 200 to about 75 since his four cobalt positives were disclosed in 2014.
O’Brien said after at that point having 50 staff on his books at his Flemington and Barwon Heads stables, that number is down to fewer than 30.
O’Brien told the tribunal that the ongoing nature of the case severely restricted his ability to replenish his stock as he has been unable to buy at yearling sales for much of the past two years because of the uncertain nature of his position after late last year being disqualified for four years by the Racing Appeals and Disciplinary Board.
The trainer will re-take the stand on Tuesday morning and his evidence is expected to take up the entire day. He will be followed onto the stand by Kavanagh, who is listed as the final witness in the case. Dates in October are being pursued to allow final oral submissions from counsel.
The tribunal heard that O’Brien, in his former role as board member of the Australian Trainers’ Association, had been instrumental in the decision to ensure all horses on major race days are on the track three hours before they are due to race instead of the former two.
O’Brien said this came about after he and chief steward Terry Bailey had discussed the apparent use, by some trainers, of TC02 (bi-carb). It was decided that the three-hour rule meant that any off-course bi-carb drench would be more easily detected once the horse was on course.
Earlier, Damian Sheales, who is representing both trainers, lamented to VCAT president Justice Greg Garde that the cost in terms of finances and reputation for both trainers has been ‘devastating’ and he said much of the blame for the delay rests with Racing Victoria and the way it has run its case.
Sheales claimed to Justice Garde that the RV stewards were ‘manipulating the process’ and were ‘unethical’ in the manner in which they were ‘blurring’ the evidence.
He said a prime example of how the appeals process has been delayed came last Wednesday when Dr Adam Matthews spent the bulk of the day on the witness stand despite Sheales claiming he was irrelevant to the current hearing.
Sheales said that last week, the arranging of and then cross-examining of Matthews as a witness had cost his clients $35,000.
“They have tried to keep their businesses alive while this has dragged on and on and on,” he said. “They have been decimated.”
During the morning session, when cross-examining the final prosecution witness Brendan McCreesh, Sheales accused Racing Victoria of manipulating data after it was revealed that the spreadsheet of Telstra phone records between O’Brien and vets Dr Tom Brennan and Dr Adam Matthews that was produced at the hearing was not the one that had been completed by McCreesh.
The hearing resumes at 10am on Tuesday.