By: Jean Edwards
Incriminating footage capturing the moment racing stewards confront a stablehand allegedly doping a Robert Smerdon-trained horse at Flemington has been aired at a hearing into the Aquanita scandal.
Eight people connected to the powerful thoroughbred stables are facing 271 charges at a Racing Appeals and Disciplinary Board hearing in Melbourne.
Racing Victoria lawyer Jeff Gleeson QC told the hearing trainers Robert Smerdon, Stuart Webb, Tony Vasil, Trent Pennuto and Liam Birchley, and stablehands Greg Nelligan, Denise Nelligan and Daniel Garland were involved in “knowing, brazen and systematic” doping between 2010 and 2017.
“It was … a habit of cheating,” he said.
The video footage — which the board declined to publicly release — shows stablehand Greg Nelligan in a box with the racehorse Lovani and a modified syringe plunger allegedly containing sodium bicarbonate paste concealed in a yellow plastic bag last October.
When officials ask him what he is doing, Mr Nelligan says “no-one else has got anything to do with it” and claims the pink paste on Lovani’s mouth and bit is “something I made up … it’s a gel”.
Mr Gleeson told the hearing Mr Nelligan made a “forlorn attempt” to hide the plunger under his clothes.
Text messages showed references to ‘top-ups’
The disciplinary board heard stewards seized a large number of text messages from Mr Nelligan’s phone allegedly littered with references to “top-ups”, ” tops” and “topping”.
Mr Nelligan and Mr Smerdon are accused of administering more than 100 banned race-day treatments or “top-ups” to horses over the seven-year period.
Sodium bicarbonate is potentially performance-enhancing by slowing the build-up of lactic acid so horses can run longer without tiring.
Mr Gleeson said claims the term “top-ups” referred to topping up the horses’ food or water were implausible.
Mr Smerdon has reserved his plea and will not be giving evidence — the Nelligans have entered “no contest” pleas and will not be appearing at the hearing either.
The other five have pleaded not guilty.