Second top rider faces probe
A SECOND champion jockey, Mark Zahra, has become embroiled in the Smoking Aces race-fixing scandal.
The Age can also reveal that the Australian Federal Police and the Tax Office are joining Victorian detectives in probing the 2011 murder of former horse trainer Les Samba and in an offshoot investigation into corruption in the racing industry.
It is understood that police are following a national and international money trail, and the role of the AFP will be to follow leads across Australia and overseas.
Racing industry sources also revealed that the Australian Crime Commission – the nation’s peak criminal intelligence body – has questioned up to a dozen figures in connection with the race-fixing probe.
Zahra and fellow leading jockey Danny Nikolic are under investigation by organised crime detectives over allegations that they helped fix a race last year.
Zahra is being investigated for allegedly conspiring to ride his horse, Baikal, in a way that would reduce the chances of the race favourite, Retaliate, and favour Nikolic’s mount, Smoking Aces.
The race, won by Nikolic, was held at Cranbourne in April last year. Punters associated with Nikolic collected up to $200,000 in betting returns.
Zahra is one of Australia’s leading jockeys and has just returned from a stint in Hong Kong to prepare for the Melbourne spring carnival.
Nikolic and Zahra have both declined to answer questions about the Smoking Aces affair.
Detective Superintendent Gerard Ryan said: ”Racing is not only limited to here in Victoria, it’s here nationally and internationally and we know that our jockeys travel the world, so we
need to have a look [at] exactly what they’re up to.
”The Australian Federal Police, the Australian Taxation Office and other law enforcement agencies are embedded into the Purana taskforce as a part of this investigation.”
Victoria’s racing integrity commissioner, Sal Perna, has called on state and federal authorities to do more to safeguard the sport.
In NSW and other states, the oversight regime is less independent and weaker than in Victoria, and Mr Perna, along with other anti-corruption experts, want national laws and standards to be introduced to protect racing and other sports.
Mr Perna said such inconsistencies ”can’t be good” for racing. ”We want the same standard to apply when it comes to integrity right across the board,” he said.
The Age can also reveal that convicted drug trafficker Horty Mokbel has resurrected his brother Tony’s ”tracksuit gang”, which was a group of big punters – including organised criminals and racing figures – who bet big and formed close ties with jockeys, bookmakers and trainers.
The Age has observed Horty and this new group of track-suited punters meet almost daily outside a suburban TAB outlet in Melbourne.
Among them was underworld identity Paul Sequenzia, who part-owns the most successful horse in harness racing, Sushi Sushi.
Mr Sequenzia, who had drug trafficking charges against him dropped in 2004, was also part-owner of Em Maguane, one of the first horses in Australia to test positive for the performance-enhancing drug EPO.
While members of Tony Mokbel’s old tracksuit gang are barred from Victorian racetracks and the Crown Casino – on the actions of former chief police commissioner Christine Nixon – Mr Sequenzia and several members of the re-formed group are not. This is despite police intelligence revealing they are a major threat to the integrity of racing in Victoria.
Yesterday, Victorian Racing Minister Denis Napthine and Racing Victoria chief Rob Hines defended the integrity of the sport, and federal Sports Minister Kate Lundy said she would assess the latest allegations before responding.
”Police are saying they’re looking at one race out of many, many thousands that are conducted in Victoria each year,” Mr Napthine said.
”I have every faith and belief that racing in Victoria is run at the highest level of integrity.”
Mr Hines called for the statutory authority to be given greater powers to weed out race fixers and wrongdoers and urged the industry to have closer relations with police.
He said he had ”no concerns” about what names might be uncovered during the investigations, but emphasised his belief that the $4 million a year spent by Racing Victoria on its integrity services ensured that the industry was overwhelmingly straight.
The biggest problem, he said, was Racing Victoria’s inability to act against unlicensed people if there was sufficient activity to warrant investigation.
He said a VCAT decision two years ago preventing Racing Victoria from acting against unlicensed individuals had stymied its ability to police the sport much as it would like.
”That is a limitation, a gap in the integrity system of racing.”