Do crooks fancy horse racing? You can bet on it!
RACING people and gangster types have much in common. Both have a weakness for flash suits and designer shades and tend to negotiate business deals out of the side of the mouth. And in both worlds, those who fail to jump the appropriate hurdles are redeployed to the pet mince factory.
While most racing people are not crooks, there are few serious crooks who are not serious punters. This is for two obvious reasons – they have plenty of cash to indulge in the sport of kings and plenty of time to study the form as they are rarely distracted by the demands of fulltime employment.
Like all punters, crooks want to make a profit – but they are the only gamblers who win when they lose. Even if they come from the track with less than they started, it can still be a productive day. That is, if they can launder illegal drug money into seemingly legitimate gambling income via at least some winning bets.
Which is why, when trying to explain his remarkable wealth, supermarket shelf stacker turned gangster Carl Williams described himself as a professional punter (until he backed the wrong horse and was murdered inside Barwon Prison).
Gangsters love to befriend jockeys and over the years some of these pint-sized rascals have been seen in the company of underworld types. Like models, jockeys are perennially on diets so perhaps they are just grateful to be taken to posh restaurants and shouted a big dish of beef chow mein – which makes a welcome change to their usual three courses of a lettuce leaf, filtered coffee and an unfiltered cigarette.
As an aside, a well-known jockey, who is not short of a dollar, was recently caught shoplifting in a supermarket, allegedly munching cheese in the aisle and placing smallgoods down his trousers. This was unwise on three grounds: a) such activities are likely to draw unwanted police attention; b) your underpants would smell of garlic sausage; and c) it is hard to maintain your racing weight with a gutful of Cracker Barrel on board.
If racing people are ever challenged over links to gangsters they usually suggest that the relationships are harmless friendships based on shared interests (love of cash being one of them). However, the true nature of such liaisons is sometimes exposed when police target a particular crime. The February 2011 murder of trainer Les Samba in Middle Park is a case in point.
For years Samba had associated with crooks, and within 24 hours of his death, homicide investigators started to concentrate on racing types who had a grudge against him. The case has since been shifted from homicide to the Purana Taskforce – the experts on matters gangland – a big clue as to where this investigation is heading. Another is the decision to offer a million-dollar reward.
During the probe, police uncovered reliable information that an April 2011 Cranbourne race won by Smoking Aces and ridden by Danny Nikolic had been fixed. When The Age’s dedicated and not unattractive investigative duo Richard Baker and Nick McKenzie wrote of the case (McKenzie later expanding on the issue on Four Corners) vested interests were quick to hose down the allegations. But after further revelations in this paper that more than 20 races may have have been manipulated, Victoria’s Racing Integrity Commissioner Sal Perna has announced a wide-ranging inquiry into the claims.
Perna, a former senior policeman with homicide experience, is the right man for the job. He is not a career racing man and will not be frightened to dig up the odd skeleton.
Make no mistake, police are red hot on this one and are not buying the one rotten apple theory. They see certain racing practices as leaving the multibillion-dollar industry open to corruption.
Over the past year, Chief Commissioner Ken Lay has quietly banned 10 rogues from sticking their bent noses on any racetrack in Victoria – the first such orders since 2006. And if the rumours are true that a key insider is about to confess his sins, some jockeys will soon be swapping racing silks for prison overalls, and stirrups for handcuffs.
One has confided he expects to serve two years if the truth surfaces. And he is being optimistic.
If you had been standing outside the Australian Crime Commission recently you would have seen a steady stream of racing figures who had been ordered to pop in for a chat.
Perhaps if we had been able to sneak inside we would have heard a leading jockey say he had been paid nearly $100,000 by convicted drug dealer Tony Mokbel for race tips. Now, Tony has always been a big tipper (often leaving A $100 gratuity at his favourite restaurant for a feed of juicy shrimp) but you’d think he’d want some value for 100 grand.
The case of Mokbel is evidence that the system is not working. Even when banned from racetracks and from owning horses, he remained a key player. He had a front man place bets with bookies, owned property with licensed racing figures, paid jockeys, encouraged family members to own horses, and set up his own stud.
And then there is Danny Nikolic. If police had their way, Danny would be banned from riding a horse on a carousel let alone in the spring carnival. He has been questioned over the Samba murder (he is not considered a suspect), charged with multiple assaults (including allegedly attacking a policeman) and is under investigation for race fixing. But it is not the police’s call to make.
Equally, racing authorities are frustrated that much of the material gathered by police from telephone intercepts cannot, by law, be shared with them. For too long, police have been unable or unwilling to share information with racing authorities who are desperate to gather the sharp evidence to lance this boil.
Racing Minister Denis Napthine is also annoyed, having told The Age that if new laws were required he would gladly introduce them – if only the appropriate agencies would ask.
This cycle is familiar. About 30 years ago, the Mokbel of his time, ”Aussie” Bob Trimbole, was caught on phone taps talking regularly to key racing figures.
In one such chat a jockey said of a colleague: ”He doesn’t care if he gets six months, he’ll almost strangle a horse to pull him up.”
The trouble was the New South Wales police taps were illegal and therefore couldn’t be used as evidence.
When your correspondent was chasing stories on the phone taps, we felt it best to ring some of Trimbole’s associates (Bob, just like Mokbel decades later, having done a Houdini and disappeared overseas).
As it was unlikely these associates would immediately open up on such matters, we opened the batting by asking: ”Are you upset that your phones were illegally bugged by police?” After they had expressed their indignation, we would gently add, ”while talking to Bob Trimbole?”
One well-known jockey responded thus: ”He was a real gentleman as far as I was concerned. He was a true friend and I would always try and help him out.”
Flushed with success, we tried the same tactic on another big name in racing. After an initial pause, he responded: ”You better take that up with my lawyer.” When asked his lawyer’s name he said, ”You’d better find that out yourself”, before gently placing the press box phone back on the cradle.
None of this should lead to the conclusion that racing is riddled with corruption. Modern betting leaves an electronic trail that can be followed, and stewards these days are picked not just because they look good in a pork pie hat.
But where there is money, there will always be sharpies trying to to get their hands on it. And the sharpest are sometimes those from the top end of town.
Take merchant banker Laurie ”Last Resort” Connell, whose horse Rocket Racer won the 1987 Perth Cup by a staggering nine lengths.
So excited was the horse, the jockey had trouble pulling it up, well after the winning post, and when he did, Rocket Racer was near collapse.
When we saw footage of the horse, it reminded us of another we had seen injected three years earlier at a secret test to show the effects of the powerful drug etorphine, known as ”Elephant Juice”.
The little black mare had been given a tiny dose of the drug used to legally sedate elephants and illegally stimulate horses, and had reacted in exactly the same way as Rocket Racer.
Connell’s horse was so ill it was not swabbed, which was extremely fortunate for Laurie – although he finally ran out of luck when he was jailed for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice over another track rort.
Connell had one of Australia’s biggest stables back in the Rocket Racer days and had two Perth trainers working for him. One was George Way who was busted after two horses (one from Connell’s stable) proved positive to Elephant Juice.
Way was also recorded on the illegal NSW phone taps talking to his close friend Bob Trimbole.
He had another colourful mate in the industry.
His name was Les Samba.
And so the cycle continues.