A phone call made at the wrong time and place has tarnished Damien Oliver's career and seriously damaged the credibility of those responsible for running horse racing in Victoria.
Oliver's ill-fated call was made via a mobile phone in or near the jockeys' area at Moonee Valley on October 1, 2010. Its purpose was to place a $10,000 bet through former AFL player turned professional punter, Mark Hunter, on a rival horse in the race he was about to ride in.
As things turned out, that rival horse, the favourite Miss Octopussy, won and paid $2.30. Oliver's mount, Europa Point, was the second favourite but ran sixth. There is no suggestion Oliver did not ride the horse to the best of his considerable ability.
However, Oliver broke two of racing's iron-clad rules – that jockeys cannot bet and cannot use a phone in the jockeys' room.
Coming after the fallout from revelations that police are investigating fellow jockey Danny Nikolic for alleged race fixing and intimidating chief steward Terry Bailey, the news of Oliver's illegal bet was the last thing Racing Victoria needed as it galloped into the splendour of the Spring Carnival.
Jockey Damien Oliver arrives at the Racing Victoria inquiry this morning. Photo: Jason South
But Racing Victoria made a big problem even worse with its inept handling of the Oliver betting affair. Fairfax Media published revelations about the bet on October 14. In response, Oliver made no comment but did not seek to deny the report.
On Melbourne Cup day, some three weeks later, Fairfax Media revealed Oliver had admitted to the illegal bet on Miss Octopussy and that this admission was known to racing officials. Amazingly, Oliver was still allowed to ride Melbourne Cup favourite Americain. Even more amazing was the fact that senior Victorian racing officials were furious the report of Oliver's admission was published on the industry's biggest day of the year.
It beggars belief that a professional organisation such as Racing Victoria took almost a month to investigate Oliver's illegal bet and only laid charges on the Monday after the Spring Carnival ended.
Damien Oliver - highs and lows
Jockey Damien Oliver talks to the media after being given a 10 month ban at the betting inquiry at Racing Victoria. Photo: Jason South
To defend itself from criticism, Racing Victoria resorted to semantics, saying that Oliver's first "formal admissions" were only made on Monday, November 12.
Racing Victoria's assertions make no sense because all it had to do is ask one question of Oliver on October 14, the day the illegal bet was revealed: "Did you place the bet on Miss Octopussy?"
That it apparently took a month to get an answer points to a big problem within Racing Victoria's integrity systems. If Oliver wouldn't answer the question immediately, then why was he allowed to continue riding and earn tens-of-thousands-of-dollars in prize money?
This morning, a reportedly demonstrably upset Oliver was suspended from racing for 10 months. The suspension is on the light side and will allow Oliver a free run at next year's Spring Carnival.
No doubt Oliver's admission, his previously unblemished history, his mental state at the time of the Miss Octopussy bet and his age of 40 were factors in the length of the sentence.
Still, it sends a message to others in the industry who might be tempted to break the rules. The negative publicity for Oliver is probably worse than the suspension.
How Australia's best-known jockey and the Racing Victoria hierarchy must dearly wish Hunter did not answer his phone back in October 2010.
For Oliver, he now has time to attend to his family issues and give his body a rest. For Racing Victoria, it still has much to explain about its handling of this and other integrity issues.
The bad news for racing is not over. Other investigations into various racing participants are nearing conclusion.
But the end result could be the clean-out racing needs to ensure the Australian public has confidence that they are getting a fair go when they put their hands in the pockets to punt.