On the wrong track
A murdered racing identity, tainted jockeys and money laundering. Throw in gangster Tony Mokbel and no wonder police suspect corruption in the industry.
LES Samba was a complex man: controversial trainer of thoroughbred horses, doting father, one-time male stripper, renowned judge of horse flesh, friend of gangsters, police target and one-time father-in-law of champion jockey Danny Nikolic.
Samba was also a man of many secrets. Most would die with him when he was fatally shot in February 2011 in Middle Park, an inner-city Melbourne suburb better known for its up-market Victorian-era houses than colourful racing identities and murder.
But investigations into unsolved murders, especially high-profile ones, have a way of not going away. As public pressure for arrests builds, detectives dig harder and harder, hoping for a clue that will lead them to a killer. Sometimes they’ll find things that they weren’t expecting.
It was one such finding that recently led Victoria Police command to quietly move the probe into Les Samba’s death from the homicide squad to a new group of investigators.
The Purana taskforce is best known for solving most of Melbourne’s very public gangland murders. But some in Australia’s multibillion-dollar horse racing industry know Purana for another reason. Between 2006 and 2009, during the taskforce’s quest to link Tony Mokbel’s money to murder or drug trafficking, Purana detectives became accidental experts in corruption in horse racing.
Among their discoveries was that a small number of jockeys, trainers and bookmakers had received substantial under-the-table payments from the Melbourne gangster.
It was potentially explosive information, but Purana’s priority then was murder and drug trafficking. So, apart from a brief flurry of activity in the form of interviews with racing identities and seizing a few assets linked to racing figures, much of the information it found about corruption in the industry – from illegal tipping by jockeys to money laundering by bookies – was boxed up and left to gather dust in the archives. Purana moved on to other matters. So, too, did those in racing, politics and the police force who believed the multibillion-dollar sport had been left tainted and vulnerable by the failure to weed out those whom Mokbel had corrupted.
But now that killing on a Middle Park street is again casting light in places some in racing have long preferred to remain in darkness and raised fresh questions about whether authorities have been doing enough to rid Australian sport of corruption.
About two months after Samba’s death, after a seemingly unremarkable race at Cranbourne in Melbourne’s outer south-east, a fresh police file was created. It dealt with suspicious betting, some very familiar names in racing and allegations of race fixing. Murder was, once again, leading police back to the track.
Samba, who once worked with Sydney gangster Abe ”Mr Sin” Saffron, earned his early racing notoriety with his involvement in doping horses in the 1980s. Tax and policing authorities also kept tabs on him. Between 1999 and 2002, Samba was investigated by the National Crime Authority and the Tax Office over his failure to declare income of $1.2 million.
Samba was banned from training horses because of his link to corrupt racing identities and so focused on buying them for his wealthier associates, including Sydney property developer Ron Medich.
Former Victorian chief steward Des Gleeson recalls Samba as a man often close to controversy, but with racing in his blood. In 1969, Samba was the strapper for Rain Lover when it won the Melbourne Cup.
”He raced horses successfully right through New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria,” says Gleeson.
If Samba’s involvement in the sport was colourful, Mokbel’s activities in the racing world were technicolour. But both are examples of the ease with which bad men can shrug off scandal and remain closely associated with a sport whose integrity is supposedly more closely guarded than any other. Mokbel’s early introduction to the sport was as leader of the ”tracksuit gang”, a group of punters who bet heavily and frequented racetracks dressed in designer tracksuits. From there, he gained a strong foothold in the industry.
One prominent trainer who dealt closely with Mokbel’s drug trafficking brother Horty once toldThe Age that what the Mokbels did for a living was neither his business nor concern. The trainer’s indifference seemingly remained even when Horty arranged for a $475,000 horse bought by this trainer to be paid for in cash.
The stewards suspected what was going on, but had no powers to stop it. Their pleas for police help to curb Mokbel’s growing influence on racing in the early 2000s fell on deaf ears. It wasn’t until the gangland killings erupted and the Purana taskforce was assigned to map and destroy Mokbel’s crime empire that the true extent of his corrupting influence in racing began to emerge.
Between 2006 and 2009, Purana found information that suggested that Mokbel had paid licensed bookmakers in return for their help laundering his money.
Former detective inspector Jim O’Brien, the head of the Purana taskforce between 2005 and 2009, says Mokbel used third parties to punt for him and ”breaking down the amounts of those bets so that they weren’t subject to Austrac [anti-money laundering agency] reporting by bookmakers”.
Mokbel also corrupted jockeys by ”slinging” them cash payments in return for inside information about their mounts, a practice that can lead to a jockey being disqualified.
The biggest thing to flow from Purana’s confidential findings about Mokbel’s racing activities was a report by former judge Gordon Lewis in 2008. But despite the seriousness of the matters Lewis investigated, his inquiry had no real powers.
Lewis could not force people to be interviewed or to obtain evidence. His report was limited to broad findings, including the sensational claim that criminal activity in the sport was ”rampant” and that jockeys, trainers and bookmakers had formed inappropriate relationships with criminals.
Yet after the Lewis inquiry and Purana’s work, not a single bookmaker was charged or was stripped of their bookie’s licence. Nor was any jockey found to have ”tipped” to Mokbel subjected to further investigation or any penalty.
O’Brien says the failure to follow up on his taskforce’s early work exposed the sport to ”a potential threat going forward”.
Among the champion jockeys scrutinised over their dealings with Mokbel was one of Australia’s best riders, Danny Nikolic.
In the early 2000s, Nikolic had been one of several jockeys, including Jimmy Cassidy, who grew close to Mokbel. Nikolic rode several horses owned by the Mokbel family and, according to well-placed racing sources, fed Mokbel information that Mokbel used to inform his betting (an allegation understood to be documented in police intelligence files, but which Nikolic denies).
After the pair’s relationship petered out – a racing source says Mokbel lost big after a bad tip from Nikolic – the champion rider appeared to move to safer pastures. Marriage and fatherhood was on the horizon. In 2006, when Nikolic married his girlfriend Victoria, his new father-in-law, Les Samba, looked on.
In early 2010, Nikolic was again in the sights of racing authorities. Victorian stewards had gathered phone and betting records and believed that before several races, Nikolic had spoken to associates who then made ultimately successful lay bets (betting on a horse not to come first) on Nikolic’s mounts. The stewards suspected Nikolic had repeatedly passed inside information about his mounts to punters close to the Nikolic family.
But, without police powers, the best case they could mount was circumstantial. So, once again, they asked police for help and once again they were denied it.
”The police told [the stewards] … to go it alone,” according to one source, who says that one of the sticking points was that police said that no complainant (such as a punter who had lost money as a result of the alleged misconduct) had come forward to enable them to initiate an inquiry.
When the stewards presented their circumstantial case before the Racing Appeals and Disciplinary Board, they lost. The board found that ”the evidence relied on by the stewards as a basis for drawing an inference that Nikolic communicated the chances of his mounts raises suspicions about what transpired but harbouring suspicions about conduct is not sufficient to prove the charges”.
SAMBA appears to have had no idea someone wanted him dead. He’d travelled from Sydney to Melbourne in late February last year to attend the yearling sales and was staying at the classy Crown Metropol Hotel.
On Sunday, February 28, he made the short trip in his hire car to Beaconsfield Parade in Middle Park. He arrived about 9.30pm. A short time later, witnesses heard an argument and then gun shots. Samba died at the scene.
Within hours of the shooting, journalists were calling Nikolic asking if he’d heard that his former father-in-law (by then Nikolic had separated from Samba’s daughter) was dead.
”Obviously I’m very surprised and very shocked that Les has been killed,” he told one reporter.
”I didn’t have much to do with the bloke so I wouldn’t know anything about why this could happen.”
Nikolic would later voluntarily speak to police about Samba’s death. But homicide detectives would make their own moves as well. In early April, they searched the Gold Coast home of Danny’s brother, former trainer John Nikolic.
The police have disclosed nothing linking Danny or John to Samba’s murder, and The Age is not suggesting there exists any information of such a link.
Yet for reasons known only to them, detectives appear to have kept an eye on the pair. A fortnight after John Nikolic’s home was searched, Danny was riding at Cranbourne in Melbourne’s outer south-east.
It was an unremarkable race day: a relatively small crowd dotting the grandstand or watching events over pots and parmas at the trackside bar and bistro.
Even those closely surveying race six would have seen nothing out of the ordinary. Aside from raising some minor points, the stewards didn’t dispute the race outcome: the favourite, Retaliate, had come second, beaten by a horse called Smoking Aces ridden by Nikolic.
But if observers could have factored in the betting and the identity of those backing Nikolic’s mount, interest may have been stirred. Racing sources, including those with direct links to the race, say that associates of the Nikolic brothers punted relatively heavily on Smoking Aces. They won a combined total around $200,000. Something strange was going on.
Shortly after the race, the homicide detectives investigating Samba’s murder called in police chiefs. Yesterday, police revealed why, publicly confirming that as a result of inquiries undertaken during the Samba probe, detectives are investigating allegations of race fixing involving the ride of Smoking Aces at Cranbourne. (Several months ago, The Age contacted police with information about the race found while researching integrity in sport. Police requested nothing be published until this week.)
It’s understood that Danny Nikolic and another champion jockey, Mark Zahra, are being investigated about whether they conspired before the race to alter its outcome. Both jockeys, along with John Nikolic, have declined to comment on the allegations.
If police have been slow to move on racing corruption in the past, they are making all efforts to appear to be on the front foot in the wake of this week’s revelations. They recently moved the probe into the Samba murder and the alleged race fixing to the Purana organised crime taskforce. Yesterday, police posted a $1 million reward for information leading to the arrests of Samba’s killers.
One of Victoria’s most senior organised crime detectives, Superintendent Gerry Ryan, told The Age: ”We’ll leave no stone unturned. So that means we’ll look at a number of races and, you know, a number of areas that unfold as the investigation goes.
”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.
”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.”
Nick McKenzie is an investigative reporter.