Top racing figures embroiled in corruption scandal

Top racing figures embroiled in corruption scandal

Top racing figures embroiled in corruption scandal

Updated 6 August 2012, 21:25 AEST

Champion jockey Danny Nikolic is under police investigation for alleged race fixing in what is shaping up as a huge corruption scandal, Four Corners reveals.

The Australian horse racing community is in shock following revelations of a police investigation into a number of top racing figures, in what is shaping up as the biggest corruption scandal to hit the sport in decades.

In a joint investigation with The Age newspaper, the ABC's Four Corners program can reveal champion jockey Danny Nikolic, at least one other leading jockey, a former trainer and several other well-known racing identities across Australia are under investigation by Victorian organised crime detectives for allegedly conspiring to fix the outcome of a race last year.

The corruption involves alleged race fixing, money laundering, tax fraud and the release of inside information to punters.

Detective Superintendent Gerard Ryan confirmed police are investigating race fixing in Victoria involving a horse called Smoking Aces in 2011.

The suspected race fix was uncovered during the probe into former trainer Les Samba's murder, and is understood to have yielded participants a total of up to $200,000 in betting returns.

Police today announced a $1 million reward for information leading to the arrest of Samba's killers.

"Certainly, I believe that if we're able to solve the race fixing and solve the issues that are emerging, we will certainly solve the murder," Detective Superintendent Ryan said in an exclusive interview.

The CEO of the Australian Racing Board, Peter McGauran, says the allegations should not tarnish the reputation of the sport as a whole.

"There is no systemic corruption or wrongdoing in racing," he said.

"The policing by stewards is simply too severe to allow that to happen. Where there are isolated cases of wrongdoing it's upsetting to the 99.9 per cent of honest people who make a living and present the best racing product in the world."

Victorian Racing Minister Denis Napthine says he is confident there are no widespread integrity problems within the state's horseracing industry.

However he says he is prepared to consider any changes that may be recommended as a result of the police investigation.

"If there are recommendations for changes in the law, the way that integrity systems are delivered in racing, we will listen to those recommendations and adopt them as appropriate," he said.

Some of the alleged conduct under investigation may breach criminal laws or the rules of racing.

Racing figures suspected of involvement in the Smoking Aces affair are believed to have arranged for two jockeys to ride in a fashion that would reduce the race favourite's chances of winning and boost Smoking Aces' chances of success.

'No stone unturned'

So serious is the alleged racing corruption under investigation, Victoria Police has moved the Samba probe to the Purana organised crime task force.

"We'll leave no stone unturned. So that means we'll look at a number of races ... and a number of areas that unfold as the investigation goes [on]," Detective Superintendent Ryan said.

"But it's important, at the end of this investigation, to make sure that the integrity in racing here in Victoria and nationally is squeaky clean."

Samba was shot dead at Beaconsfield Parade in Middle Park on the evening of February 28 last year.

Danny Nikolic, a leading Australian jockey and Caulfield Cup winner, married Samba's daughter, Victoria, in 2006, but they had separated some time before Samba's death.

The ABC is not suggesting Nikolic has any involvement in the murder.

Nikolic declined to answer questions about Smoking Aces and did not respond to a list of questions sent to his lawyer on Thursday evening.

The revelations cast a cloud over the integrity of the nation's multi-billion-dollar racing industry and the regime in place to safeguard it.

Top police and racing officials - including former Victorian chief steward and AFL corruption consultant Des Gleeson - are calling for the federal and state governments to immediately boost Australia's anti-corruption sporting regime.

Mr Gleeson says governments need to urgently fill major holes in the existing system, by introducing a national sporting integrity body, nationwide standards, and race and match-fixing laws.

"[This] should have been done yesterday... before there's an almighty scandal in sport in Australia," he said.

The former head of Purana, Jim O'Brien, said the oversight of racing has "been extremely poor", partly due to the insufficient powers held by racing stewards and absence of sustained police attention.

The former detective inspector described as "surprising" the failure of authorities to further investigate and hold to account racing figures identified by Purana - between 2005 and 2009 - as having been possibly corrupted by drug boss Tony Mokbel.

"It's not good for the industry and you know it, it also creates a potential threat going forward," Mr O'Brien said.

Troubled history

The Smoking Aces inquiry is not the first time Nikolic's activities have fallen under scrutiny.

In early 2010, he was charged by Victorian racing stewards with leaking information about several of his mounts to punters, who then successfully bet on the horses to not finish first.

The ABC can reveal that in that case, a request from stewards to police for assistance to help gather more evidence was denied.

The stewards persisted with a circumstantial case, but Nikolic was cleared by the racing disciplinary board in June 2010 on the basis that the evidence presented was insufficient to prove the case.

Police began quizzing suspects, including trainers and jockeys, earlier this year in connection to the Smoking Aces case.

Detective Superintendent Ryan has conceded that, in the past, police "did take our eye off the ball", but he said Victoria was now leading the country in fighting corruption in racing and other sports.

"We needed to get back into this arena and we have," he said.

Victoria Police recently became the only force in Australia with a dedicated sport corruption response model, which is led by a superintendent and which can draw on experts, including specialist detectives and forensic accountants.

Two detectives have also recently been appointed to oversee all intelligence gathered about corruption in horse racing.

"Anyone that's involved in any criminal enterprise in any shape or form and particularly in organised crime, we'll come chasing it and we'll make sure that the integrity in any sport, particularly racing... will be upheld," Detective Superintendent Ryan said.

"Whether it's a jockey or a trainer or any person involved in it, we will chase them and we will charge them and put them properly before a court of law."

Anti-sports corruption measures are much weaker in some states and sports than others, with Victoria the only state to have a full-time racing watchdog.

The New South Wales Government's efforts to introduce independent scrutiny of its scandal-tainted harness and greyhound racing industry has been beset by problems, with the last watchdog appointed, former state ombudsman David Landa, resigning in protest.

He told the joint investigation by The Age and Four Corners that the oversight model in New South Wales was "a fraud on the public" because it lacked any independence or powers.

The Age has been investigating corruption in racing since last year. After racing sources revealed concerns about a race involving Smoking Aces, The Age approached Victoria Police in April and was asked by senior police to withhold reporting on the matter until this week.