Sensational twist as racing’s alleged doping saga deepens
IN a sensational twist, leading trainers Robert Smerdon and Stuart Webb have been stood down by Racing Victoria as the fallout from an investigation into alleged systematic doping deepens.
RV took the rare step after consulting with Aquanita Racing, the management services operation with previous and existing links to the eight people charged in the Lovani probe.
Trainers Tony Vasil and Liam Birchley and stablehand Greg Nelligan have been issued show causes notices to show why they should not be stood down.
The stand down notices are effectively suspensions.
Trent Pennuto, another trainer facing charges from the doping probe, is already disqualified.
RV said welcomed Aquanita's decision and its continued co-operation with this inquiry.
"It's vital that the integrity of Victorian thoroughbred racing is protected while we await the outcomes of the Racing Appeals and Disciplinary Board hearing of these charges," RV chief executive Giles Thompson said.
"It is important to say that all of those charged by stewards on Tuesday have a presumption of innocence, however given the serious nature of the charges the Stewards believe this is an appropriate course of action for the Aquanita personnel to have taken.
"Under the Australian rules of Racing, the registered and licensed personnel facing charges can be stood down pending a hearing if their continued participation in racing might pose an unacceptable risk to, prejudice or undermine the image, interests or integrity of racing.
"The Stewards have made no determinations concerning the show cause notices involving Mr Vasil, Mr Birchley and Mr Nelligan and they will be given the full opportunity to put submissions to the Stewards in regards to their own situations."
The stand down order means the trainers involved must hand over control of their horses to other trainers until the charges are heard by the Racing Appeals and Disciplinary Board.
Aquanita Racing chairman Peter Howell announced they would split the training duties between Rob Hickmott, Henry Dwyer, John Sadler and Nick Ryan.
"With these multiple Group One winning trainers, we have every confidence the horses trained by Robert and Stuart will receive outstanding training and care," Howell said.
Greg and Denise Nelligan and stablehand Garland also will be unable to participate in the industry until the matter is dealt with at a date yet to be fixed.
The eight accused face a combined 271 counts under multiple charges following a dramatic sting at Flemington on October 7.
After laying the charges on Tuesday, stewards sought legal advice over whether it was appropriate to "stand down participants accused of serious rule infringements on the grounds of ongoing integrity concerns or if the image of racing suffers as a result of their continued involvement while the charges are heard."
Smerdon faces 115 counts of engaging "in a practice that was dishonest, corrupt or fraudulent, improper or dishonourable, in that he was a party to the administration of alkalinising agents and/or medications to a horse or horses on a race day" over a seven-year period.
Fellow Group 1-winning trainers Vasil, Webb and Birchley face several counts under the same charge, as does Pennuto and Denise Nelligan.
Greg Nelligan must answer to 123 counts relating to alleged illegal race-date treatment plus several other charges including backing horses to lose and refusing to comply with stewards' orders.
Nelligan was caught attempting to treat Smerdon's mare Lovani with a modified syringe in an enclosed horse urinal at Flemington on Turnbull Stakes day.
The syringe contained a paste subsequently identified as sodium bicarbonate.
The substance is used to smother lactic acid in horses, reducing fatigue.
Evidence obtained through thousands of text messages and via interviews with a string of trainers led RV to lay charges.
If the charges are proven, the ramifications for those involved are likely to be career-ending.
There is also the possibility some of the group could be warned off all Australian racecourses.
Aquanita Racing chairman Peter Howell has indicated the company is eager to bring the matter to a speedy resolution.
The hearing is not likely to be held until late February or early March.