Shock as racing faces its biggest scandal since Fine Cotton

October 7, 2017 – Turnbull Stakes day – was a beautiful one at Flemington racecourse.

Crowds had flocked to the course to see world champion racehorse Winx make her return to Melbourne.

While all eyes were fixated on the great mare, Aquanita stablehand Greg Nelliganushered another runner that day, the Robert Smerdon-trained Lovani, into the swabbing stall.

It was an ideal time. All eyes were on Winx and few were concerned with Lovani apparently having a nervous pre-race urination.

But unknown to Nelligan, Racing Victoria’s integrity team were hard at work and caught him in the act of administering an oral paste to Lovani.

The sheer arrogance – to treat a horse on race day, metres away from officialdom in the stall normally used to collect drug samples – beggars belief.

The investigation that followed the detection of Lovani’s treatment uncovered a vast and intricate web of alleged corruption and raceday treatments dating back nearly 10 years.

Now Racing Victoria stewards have levelled more than 250 charges at eight employees from the all-powerful Aquanita racing stable, making this the biggest corruption scandal in racing since the Fine Cotton ring-in nearly 35 years ago.

Those charged include Aquanita trainers Smerdon (115 charges), Tony Vasil (7), Stuart Webb (3) and Queensland-based Liam Birchley (3).

The other Aquanita staff charged were Nelligan (123), Denise Nelligan (13), Danny Garland (2) and former Aquanita employee Trent Pennuto (4).

All were charged under a rarely used rule, AR 175(a), involving “any dishonest, corrupt or fraudulent, improper or dishonourable action or practice in connection with racing”.

Other charges relate to betting activity on the Aquanita horses, including “laying them”, or betting to lose.

This is a shocking indictment on Aquanita racing, the biggest thoroughbred training operation in .

So serious are the charges that Racing Victoria have left the door open for the accused to be stood down from racing.

The investigation is ongoing, and it is possible that more charges will be laid soon.

Greg Nelligan, who incurred the most charges, was also charged with possession of syringes, needles, stomach tubes and other instruments used for treating horses.

Fairfax Media understands that a number of other regulatory bodies have been briefed or a likely to follow the enquiry now that the charges have been made public. These include the Office of Racing Integrity, Victoria Police, the n Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) and the n Tax Office.

This is because the alleged race day treatment and subsequent betting activities might be perceived as “defrauding the betting public”.

A number of harness racing identities in Queensland have been charged by the Queensland Police Racing Squad with such charges and are awaiting a court date.

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