To say the news of charges being laid against people connected to the Aquanita Racing banner for alleged treatment of horses on race day has rocked racing is an understatement.
The scale of the Aquanita business and its unique set-up make the organisation a fundamental player in the racing industry.
Designed so trainers can concentrate on the core business of training while Aquanita managed the administrative side of the business, there are close to 300 horses listed on the organisation’s website as under their care.
Two of the trainers charged, Robert Smerdon and Tony Vasil, have won a VRC Oaks, Derby and Caulfield Cup between them and have been leading trainers in the state for nearly two decades.
Now, after an inquiry that started in October last year and remains ongoing, Smerdon and Vasil face charges for engaging, 115 and seven times respectively, in “a practice that was dishonest, corrupt or fraudulent, improper or dishonourable, in that he was a party to the administration of alkalinising agents and/or medications to a horse or horses on a race day”.
They are serious charges with the allegations regarding Smerdon stretching from June 2010 to October 2017, while Vasil’s charges relate to alleged practices between 2010 and 2013.
Smerdon trained Mosheen to victory in the 2011 VRC Oaks, while Vasil’s high point came much earlier when he trained champion stayer Elvstroem to victory in both the 2003 VRC Derby and 2004 Caulfield Cup.
Trainers Trent Pennuto and Liam Birchley have also been charged as well as employees and former employees of the Smerdon and Vasil, Greg and Denise Nelligan, Daniel Garland and Stuart Webb, who trained Yosei to group 1 wins.
The total number of charges laid against the eight people is 271.
What it means for the Aquanita business in both the short term and the long term is anyone’s guess as the stewards seek legal advice on the continued involvement in racing of those charged until the hearing.
Until that decision is made, any ramifications for the horses being trained under Aquanita remain an open question.
Aquanita has a complex administrative structure that allows individual trainers to operate under the Aquanita umbrella, so the exact impact of any decision to stand aside trainers remained unclear last night.
Adding to the significance of the announcement is the fact one of Aquanita’s board members is Melbourne Racing Club chairman Mike Symons.
Symons denied any suggestions he was aware of any wrongdoing soon after news of an inquiry became public and there is also no suggestion he is under any suspicion of wrongdoing.
What Symons won’t deny is that the charges against people racing horses as part of the Aquanita set-up are serious enough to shake the industry to its foundations.