'Fixed' horse race revealed as murder probe steps up
Horse race at the centre of a betting investigation may have links to the murder of horse trainer Les Samba, police say, as a $1 million reward is offered for information.PT1M33S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-23pd6 620 349 August 6, 2012
POLICE are investigating a string of top Australian horse-racing figures, including champion jockey Danny Nikolic, for alleged race fixing in what is shaping as the biggest corruption scandal to hit the sport in decades.
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.
Detective Superintendent Gerard Ryan confirmed that police were 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.
Tony Mokbel; Nikolic with Samba at Eagle Farm, Brisbane, in 2004; police on the street where Samba was killed; Photo: AP, Penny Stephens, Andy Zakeli
After a joint Age/Four Corners investigation, it can also be revealed that police today will announce a $1 million reward for information leading to the arrest of Samba's killers.
''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,'' said Superintendent Ryan in an exclusive interview.
Other corruption issues tied to racing across Australia are also understood to be under scrutiny as a result of inquiries into the killing of Samba in February last year.
Smoking Aces (left), ridden by Nikolic, at Seymour yesterday.
The suspected corruption being investigated involves race fixing, money laundering, tax fraud and tipping, in which jockeys are paid secret commissions for giving punters inside information. 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.
So serious is the alleged racing corruption that Victoria Police has moved the Samba probe to the Purana organised crime taskforce.
''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],'' said Superintendent Ryan.
''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 on Beaconsfield Parade in Middle Park on the evening of February 27 last year. Nikolic, a leading jockey and Caulfield Cup winner, married Samba's daughter, Victoria, in 2006. They had separated some time before Samba's death. The Age is not suggesting Nikolic had 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 multibillion-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 on the federal and state governments to boost the anti-corruption regime in Australian sport.
Mr Gleeson called on governments to urgently fill major holes in the 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 had been ''extremely poor'', partly due to the insufficient powers held by racing stewards and the 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 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.
The Smoking Aces inquiry is not the first time Nikolic's activities have been under scrutiny. In early 2010 Nikolic 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 Age 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.
Superintendent Ryan 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.''
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.
Superintendent Ryan said: ''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.
''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-corruption measures are much weaker in some states and sports than in others. Victoria is the only state with a full-time racing watchdog.
The NSW government's efforts to introduce independent scrutiny of its scandal-tainted harness and greyhound racing industry have been beset by problems, with the most recent watchdog appointed, former NSW 0mbudsman David Landa, resigning in protest. He told an investigation by The Age and Four Corners that the oversight model in NSW 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.
For more on the Age/Four Corners investigation, watch Four Corners tonight at 8.30.