Trainer Robert Smerdon at the Silver Bowl Final series-Race 7 at Flemington. Saturday, July 9. 2016. Picture: David Crosling
Trainer Robert Smerdon at the Silver Bowl Final series-Race 7 at Flemington. Saturday, July 9. 2016. Picture: David Crosling

Trainer ‘should never be allowed on a racetrack’

ROBERT Smerdon has been told he should never be allowed to return to racing after the Group 1-winning trainer's appeal against life disqualification and a $90,000 fine was rejected by the Victorian Civil Administrative Tribunal.

In a scathing summary, VCAT deputy president Heather Lambrick said suggestions Smerdon be eventually allowed back into racing were unwarranted.

"There are times when the racing industry should not do so," Lambrick said.

"This is such an occasion.

"Mr Smerdon has shown no remorse or contrition for his conduct. He should not return to racing."

Smerdon's now confirmed exile because of his lead role in the infamous Aquanita affair - the use of bicarbonate "top-ups" within metres of stewards - came as Stuart Webb and Tony Vasil had four and three-year penalties respectively cut to 18 months.

Lambrick ordered Smerdon, who now works as a private driver, to pay the $90,000 fine by June 30. His life ban starts immediately.

Webb is eligible to return to racing, having already served more than 18 months.

Vasil's ban starts immediately.

The trio was found guilty of engaging in "dishonest, corrupt or fraudulent, improper or dishonourable" practice in "that they were party to the administration of alkalinising and/or medications to a horse or horses on race day."

Five other licensed trainers and stablehands were also disqualified last year in one of Australia's worst racing scandals.

Only Liam Birchley, who was outed for a year by the Racing Appeals and Disciplinary Board, was successful in overturning his ban.

The others - Greg and Denise Nelligan (life), Trent Pennuto (two years) and Danny Garland (one year) - were penalised for their roles in a clandestine scheme lasting more than seven years and involving hundreds of races, possibly including the 2015 Melbourne Cup.

Banned trainer Robert Smerdon at Flemington in 2016. Picture: David Crosling
Banned trainer Robert Smerdon at Flemington in 2016. Picture: David Crosling

Lambrick condemned Smerdon's conduct as "unprecedented."

She said his role in the "top-up" scheme "completely undermined the integrity and the perception of the integrity of racing and tarnished the image of racing.

"His actions struck at the very heart of the integrity of racing," she said.

"Rather than being a leader in his field, Mr Smerdon abused the industry which had served him so well over many years.

"Racing is dependent for its ongoing success in there being absolute integrity. Mr Smerdon repeatedly displayed a total disregard for this."

Lambrick said even when confronted with evidence stewards had obtained from more than 1000 incriminating text messages on Greg Nelligan's phone, Smerdon lied.

"I found that Mr Smerdon in his interview with the stewards frequently gave untruthful/misleading answers and instead denied any knowledge of the "topping up" of race horses," she said.

"There can be no doubt that Mr Smerdon hoped/anticipated that the administration of bicarbonate to horses would lead to their obtaining an unfair advantage.

"This was not an isolated act of misconduct. I found that Mr Smerdon engaged in the conduct on 78 separate occasions.

"Although the RAD Board found him guilty of 'topping up' on more occasions (115) than I did, there comes a time when the number of occasions in which an individual engaged in prohibited conduct is so great in itself that a few more or a few less is of little or no consequence to penalty.

Stuart Webb’s ban was cut to 18 months. Picture: Peter Bull
Stuart Webb’s ban was cut to 18 months. Picture: Peter Bull

"The conduct was extremely serious and Mr Smerdon (together with Mr Nelligan) was the driving force behind the conduct.

"Mr Smerdon's conduct was deliberate and premeditated across six years on many race days in many locations.

"He was not a passive or subordinate player.

"Even when it was likely that his activities had been uncovered, he did not co-operate with the stewards."

Lambrick found Webb guilty of only one of three original charges - being party to administration of bicarb - but not administration itself.

She cut his ban from four years to 18 months.

Lambrick rejected moves by Vasil's legal team, led by Tony Hannebery, to impose a fine instead of a ban, but found the trainer guilty of two of five counts.

She said Vasil had "prolonged" proceedings with "false and misleading" statements, finding he had administered alkalinising agents on two occasions.

But she reduced his ban from three years to 18 months.