By: Andrew Eddy
Trainer Robert Smerdon has reserved his plea against 115 charges in the Aquanita inquiry while the other seven people charged have pleaded not guilty at Thursday’s second directions hearing before the Racing Appeals and Disciplinary Board.
The Board confirmed an April 30 start date for the hearing in the explosive inquiry, despite calls for adjournments from an army of legal representatives.
Board chairman Judge John Bowman began the second directions hearing into 271 charges against eight people with links to the former Aquanita Racing by expressing his disappointment that Racing Victoria stewards had not provided a summary of evidence to defence barristers in the allotted time.
This failure resulted in multiple calls for an adjournment to the proceedings but while Judge Bowman said the provided material was a ‘half-smart approach’ and was ‘effectively useless’ he said that despite the lateness of the material, the Board was determined to get the inquiry underway on April 30.
The Board heard from Smerdon’s barrister Tim McHenry that the trainer wished to reserve his plea against 115 charges but he said trainer Stuart Webb, who faces three charges and stable hand Danny Garland, who faces two charges, pleaded not guilty.
Geoff Croxford, representing trainer Trent Pennuto, said his client wished to plead not guilty to four charges while Tony Vasil’s representative Patrick Wheelahan said his client wished to plead not guilty to three charges.
Queensland trainer Liam Birchley had already pleaded not guilty to three charges.
Paul O’Sullivan, who is representing float driver Greg Nelligan (123 charges) and his wife Denise (13 charges), said his clients wanted to plead ‘no contest’ but were assured by Judge Bowman that such a plea only applies in the US and not in the state of Victoria.
Judge Bowman said that the Board and RV stewards would have to interpret their pleas as not guilty pleas.
O’Sullivan confirmed the Nelligans would not take part in the upcoming proceedings but Judge Bowman said stewards had in their power, under AR8(z), to serve the pair with a show cause as to what roles they are permitted to take in the industry after early agreeing to ‘stand down’.
It was noted by Judge Bowman that it appeared Greg Nelligan had been ‘moonlighting’ as trainers outside Aquanita were also referred to in text messages.
Judge Bowman also ruled that the leaked evidence to a Melbourne newspaper provided ‘no grounds for an argument that a fair hearing could be compromised’ as he said the hearing was not a jury trial and that the Board had the exact same evidence since January.
“We know all the material that has been run in the press,” he said.
Judge Bowman said the Board had no intention of inquiring how the evidence was leaked and said it would not be ‘distracted or deterred’.
A submission came from Vasil’s legal representative Wheelahan for the charges against his client to be heard separately but Judge Bowman ruled that charges against all eight people would be heard together.