When one considers the damage done to the world of cycling and athletics by performance enhancing drugs, perhaps we should count our blessings that horse racing is no more besmirched than it has been. Let us be frank: our sport involves asking animals to run faster than each other, with financial rewards for their connections. As such, you don’t need to be any sort of cynic to suggest there will always be those who favour skulduggery; the best we can hope for is that the authorities remain alive to the threat and continue to do their utmost to prevent would be cheats ill gotten gains. That said, there is barely a major racing nation on earth that hasn’t been hit by a doping scandal: Hong Kong and Japan come to mind.
Now, and not for the first time in recent years, it is Australia that is in the spotlight with what has been dubbed ‘Aquagate’. Described by the Sydney Morning Herald as ‘the greatest scandal of recent times’, allegations mainly with regard to ‘milkshaking’ dating back seven years have engulfed Australian racing. Given this story is developing on a daily basis, there is a danger that anything I write will be out of date by the time of publication. However, the scandal developed further over the weekend when a pair of Group One winning trainers allegedly implicated agreed to stand down pending an inquiry. Veteran trainer Robert Smerdon, the most high profile of those accused, and fellow Melbournebased trainer Stuart Webb were the two men involved.
Smerdon, who faces 115 charges, and Webb train under the umbrella of Aquanita Racing management company and their horses will be dispersed among Robert Hickmott, Henry Dwyer, John Sadler and Nick Ryan at Caulfield, where Smerdon and Webb also train. Time for some background: After a mammoth investigation into seven years of alleged doping, Racing Victoria recently laid a total of 271 charges against five trainers, all with either existing or previous links to Aquanita, and three stable employees, mainly involving the alleged illegal raceday administration of alkalising agents from June 2010 until last year. Racing Victoria stewards have also charged trainers Tony Vasil and Liam Birchley and asked them to show cause why they should not be stood down; Vasil faces seven counts and Birchley three. Smerdon’s stable hand Glen Nelligan, who faces 123 charges, has also been asked to show cause; his wife Denise and fellow Smerdon employee Daniel Garland have also stood down.
The eighth person charged, trainer Trent Pennuto, a former employee of Vasil, is already serving a disqualification for a similar offence. ‘Milkshaking’, once the scourge of US racing (especially on the west coast), is the colloquial term for the administration of sodium bicarbonate (also known as TCO2) shortly before a race in a bid to gain an edge. Designed to reduce the accumulation of lactic acid thereby reducing fatigue, they usually involve a mixture of baking soda, sugar and water being inserted via the nostril. With the Australia racing community rocked by the cobalt scandal, the sport could well do without this latest controversy involving alleged cheating. What is more, given that senior trainers Danny O’Brien and Mark Kavanagh were cleared on appeal in the cobalt cases, Racing Victoria will be keen to avoid another significant ‘black eye’ with regard to its integrity services.
Nothing is proved yet. Last week’s charges allege systematic malpractice involving trainers employed by Aquanita, one of the country’s largest operations with five trainers spread over three locations. With more than 1,800 career successes including 11 Group Ones in a 25 year career, leading Melbourne trainer Smerdon is the biggest name involved, though Vasil is well known for the exploits of multiple Group One winners Elvstroem, who won the Dubai Duty Free in 2005, and Haradasun, who won at Royal Ascot after joining Aidan O’Brien. The investigation was sparked by a dramatic sting involving the Smerdon-trained Lovani at Flemington on October 7, when Nelligan was apprehended by officers and a modified syringe confiscated.
According to Melbourne’s Herald Sun, integrity staff allege Nelligan ‘was observed using a plunger containing a paste on Lovani after taking her into an enclosed staling box at Flemington’. Nelligan has also been charged for failing to co-operate with