Picture: istock
Picture: istock

Melbourne — Five trainers and three stablehands face long bans after they were found guilty of doping horses on Tuesday in a case branded "probably the biggest scandal" to hit Australia’s thoroughbred racing industry.

The eight, from the now-defunct Aquanita Racing stable, faced 271 charges and were part of a "long-running systematic conspiracy… to obtain an unfair advantage in well over a hundred races over seven years," Victoria state’s Racing Appeals and Disciplinary Board said in its judgment.

"There has been dishonest, corrupt or fraudulent, improper or dishonourable actions of the highest order," the board said.

Trainers Robert Smerdon, Stuart Webb, Tony Vasil, Trent Pennuto and Liam Birchley, with stablehands Daniel Garland and Greg and Denise Nelligan, were party to the administration of "alkalinising agents and/or medications to a horse or horses on a raceday".

The treatments included "top-ups" of sodium bicarbonate, which can enhance performance by reducing lactic acid, allowing horses to run longer without tiring.

Racing stewards caught Greg Nelligan inserting a syringe of sodium bicarbonate in Smerdon-trained racehorse Lovani’s mouth on Turnbull Stakes Day at Melbourne’s Flemington Racecourse in October 2017.

Investigators then found about 1,000 text messages on Nelligan’s phone implicating the other trainers and stablehands.

"This matter, the Aquanita case, involves probably the biggest scandal and the most widespread investigation in the history of Australian Racing," the board said.

Nelligan was also found guilty of betting on a horse under the control of his employer. None of the eight pleaded guilty, while only Birchley attended the hearing and gave evidence.

Denise Nelligan "blew the whistle" on the whole affair when interviewed by investigators in October.

She later tried to revert from her evidence, claiming in a letter in November that she had been "under stress, intimidated and wanted to get out of the room".

"We do not accept this. Her previous answers to the stewards were clear," the board said in its judgment.

Sanctions for the eight will be handed down at a hearing on Thursday.

Racing Victoria CE Giles Thompson said the verdicts sent "a very strong signal".

However, Thompson added that those looking to cheat formed a "very small minority" in the industry.

Australian horse racing has been blighted by a slew of doping and corruption scandals in recent years. A number of trainers were sanctioned in 2016 after their horses failed drug tests for cobalt.