On the wrong track
August 7, 2012
A murdered racing identity, tainted jockeys and money laundering. Throw in gangster Tony Mokbel and no wonder police suspect corruption in the industry.
‘Fixed’ horse race revealed as murder probe steps up
Horse race at the centre of a betting investigation may have links to the murder of horse trainer Les Samba, police say, as a $1 million reward is offered for information.
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.
Purana taskforce detectives began investigating corruption in horse racing during a probe into Tony Mokbel’s drug trafficking.
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 told The 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.”
Second top rider faces probe
August 7, 2012
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.”
Stand down riders amid fix claims
August 7, 2012
RACING Victoria Ltd stewards should today stand down jockeys Dan Nikolic and Mark Zahra from riding indefinitely pending further investigations into the most dreaded curse that can befall horse racing, race fixing.
Such allegations against both Nikolic and Zahra, reported in today’s Age and featured last night in the ABC’s Four Corners program, are damaging like no other scandal could be for a sport that exists solely because some people have (enough) confidence to bet on horses. But confidence can be a fragile intangible.
The gambler is a predictable yet versatile beast. Wins are celebrated and losses mostly shrugged off. But one thing a gambler dislikes is being cheated. He won’t stop gambling but rather move on to something else. There are casinos, pokies and sports betting.
No matter the result of the police investigation into the Cranbourne race in April last year won by Nikolic aboard Smoking Aces, RVL must stand down any licensed person identified in the investigation. The presumption of innocence is a worthy ideal, but to uphold it in this case is to risk allowing the sport to be turned into a circus on the eve of the spring carnival.
It was revealed last night that Zahra and Nikolic are under investigation by the organised crime detectives over allegations that they allegedly helped fix the race in April last year. Zahra is being investigated for allegedly conspiring to ride his horse, Baikal, in a way that would reduce the chances of the favourite, Retaliate, and favour Nikolic’s mount, Smoking Aces.
Smoking Aces was backed from $10 into $5 just before the race. Zahra’s mount Baikal, who finished in front of just one horse, drifted from $7 to $14 by race time.
RVL chief executive Rob Hines confirmed yesterday that stewards will open an inquiry into investigations once they obtain information from Victoria Police, but stressed that the investigation was into one race only. That may be the case, but in these matters, perception is king, especially as the investigation into the Cranbourne race came about only following police probes into another criminal matter. The obvious question remains.
Although neither have been prominent in recent jockeys’ premierships, both are regarded as big-race riders.
Zahra was due to take his first mount since May at Geelong today, but the horse, Kukri, was scratched from race six. Nikolic is booked for one ride today – Dunharrow in race three – as well as two at Sandown Hillside tomorrow.
Racing Victoria seeks more power
August 7, 2012
RACING Victoria chief executive Rob Hines yesterday called for the statutory authority to be given greater powers to weed out race fixers and wrong doers, urged closer relations with the police and declared that transparency and the full pursuit of probity issues were in the interests of all concerned in the multi-billion dollar industry.
Hines said he had ”no concerns” whichever names were uncovered in the investigations into alleged race fixing – revealed yesterday by The Age – but stressed his belief that the $4 million a year that RVL spent on its integrity services ensured the industry was mostly corruption free.
The biggest problem RVL faced, he said, was its inability to take action against unlicensed personnel if there was sufficient activity to warrant investigation.
Hines added that, despite the adverse headlines it is good for racing to have these matters discussed in the open.
”I don’t think it’s a negative,” he said.
”We need a clean sport, we need people to believe in it and trust in our sport. The more we do to root out these issues the better the sport will be rather than try to push it under the carpet or not talk about it. We have to get on top of it. We welcome the Victoria Police’s renewed focus on this. We have been collaborating on this particular investigation for several months.
”The allegations pertain to one race only at Cranbourne. We have not been asked or made aware of any other races involved in this investigation. We are waiting for the police investigation to reach a stage where we can legally obtain the information and then use it as evidence to open a stewards inquiry.
”When these issues arise they are related to betting. When you have this much money, billions of dollars invested in an industry, there will always be a few people looking to take advantage for financial gain. That’s just life.
”The vast majority of our participants, whether they be licensed or unlicensed, do this genuinely and honestly.
”There is a small group that will be looking to take advantage. We have to try and keep on top of that group.”
Hines said that a VCAT decision two years ago preventing RVL from taking action against unlicensed individuals stymied its ability to police the sport as much as it would like.
“That is a limitation, a gap in the integrity system of racing. We cannot have jurisdiction over (some) people who are making their living out of racing through betting or being commission agents or whatever,” he said.
“We requested of the government immediately after that decision, and consistently over the past two years, that they find a way to provide racing with jurisdiction over unlicensed persons … they haven’t shut the door on us, but we would like the power.”
Hines said he didn’t believe that the allegations, in which controversial jockey Danny Nikolic has been named, would damage confidence in the sport as it heads into the spring carnival.
“It’s always unwelcome to have this kind of publicity. But I would rather have the publicity, and have people know that we are fighting these things and fixing these things than not have the publicity and it to be much more widespread,” he said.
“We do not believe there is endemic corruption in the sport. That would be very damaging for racing, and the message we want to get out to people is that over 4000 races a year this is one race and a small group of people trying to take advantage.”
Asked if the industry was prepared for what might be a messy fall out, Hines was adamant.
“I think it would be very good for racing if this is cleaned out. I have no concerns if there are people implicated whether through the Purana Taskforce or some other way and this comes to light. It can only be good for racing,” he said.
“We really welcome their renewed focus. In the last six months they have genuinely turned their attention to these matters. We have a good co-operation, its much better than it was.”
Police probe racing corruption
August 6, 2012
Nick McKenzie, Clay Hichens and Richard Baker
‘Fixed’ horse race revealed as murder probe steps up
Horse race at the centre of a betting investigation may have links to the murder of horse trainer Les Samba, police say, as a $1 million reward is offered for information.
POLICE are investigating a string of top Australian horse-racing figures, including champion jockey Danny Nikolic, for alleged race fixing in what is shaping as the biggest corruption scandal to hit the sport in decades.
Nikolic, at least one other leading jockey, a former trainer and several other well-known racing identities across Australia are under investigation by Victorian organised crime detectives for allegedly conspiring to fix the outcome of a race last year.
Detective Superintendent Gerard Ryan confirmed that police were investigating race fixing in Victoria involving a horse called Smoking Aces in 2011. The suspected race fix was uncovered during the probe into former trainer Les Samba’s murder and is understood to have yielded participants a total of up to $200,000 in betting returns.
After a joint Age/Four Corners investigation, it can also be revealed that police today will announce a $1 million reward for information leading to the arrest of Samba’s killers.
”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,” said Superintendent Ryan in an exclusive interview.
Other corruption issues tied to racing across Australia are also understood to be under scrutiny as a result of inquiries into the killing of Samba in February last year.
The suspected corruption being investigated involves race fixing, money laundering, tax fraud and tipping, in which jockeys are paid secret commissions for giving punters inside information. Some of the alleged conduct under investigation may breach criminal laws or the rules of racing.
Racing figures suspected of involvement in the Smoking Aces affair are believed to have arranged for two jockeys to ride in a fashion that would reduce the race favourite’s chances of winning and boost Smoking Aces’ chances of success.
So serious is the alleged racing corruption that Victoria Police has moved the Samba probe to the Purana organised crime taskforce.
”We’ll leave no stone unturned. So that means we’ll look at a number of races … and a number of areas that unfold as the investigation goes [on],” said Superintendent Ryan.
”But 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.”
Samba was shot dead on Beaconsfield Parade in Middle Park on the evening of February 27 last year. Nikolic, a leading jockey and Caulfield Cup winner, married Samba’s daughter, Victoria, in 2006. They had separated some time before Samba’s death. The Age is not suggesting Nikolic had any involvement in the murder.
Nikolic declined to answer questions about Smoking Aces and did not respond to a list of questions sent to his lawyer on Thursday evening.
The revelations cast a cloud over the integrity of the nation’s multibillion-dollar racing industry and the regime in place to safeguard it.
Top police and racing officials – including former Victorian chief steward and AFL corruption consultant Des Gleeson – are calling on the federal and state governments to boost the anti-corruption regime in Australian sport.
Mr Gleeson called on governments to urgently fill major holes in the system by introducing a national sporting integrity body, nationwide standards and race and match-fixing laws.
“[This] should have been done yesterday .. before there’s an almighty scandal in sport in Australia,” he said.
The former head of Purana, Jim O’Brien, said the oversight of racing had been ”extremely poor”, partly due to the insufficient powers held by racing stewards and the absence of sustained police attention.
The former detective inspector described as surprising the failure of authorities to further investigate and hold to account racing figures identified by Purana – between 2005 and 2009 – as having been corrupted by drug boss Tony Mokbel.
“It’s not good for the industry and, you know it, it also creates a potential threat going forward,” Mr O’Brien said.
The Smoking Aces inquiry is not the first time Nikolic’s activities have been under scrutiny. In early 2010 Nikolic was charged by Victorian racing stewards with leaking information about several of his mounts to punters, who then successfully bet on the horses to not finish first.
The Age can reveal that, in that case, a request from stewards to police for assistance to help gather more evidence was denied. The stewards persisted with a circumstantial case, but Nikolic was cleared by the racing disciplinary board in June 2010 on the basis that the evidence presented was insufficient to prove the case.
Police began quizzing suspects, including trainers and jockeys, earlier this year in connection to the Smoking Aces case.
Superintendent Ryan conceded that, in the past, police ”did take our eye off the ball”, but he said Victoria was now leading the country in fighting corruption in racing and other sports. ”We needed to get back into this arena and we have.”
Victoria Police recently became the only force in Australia with a dedicated sport corruption response model, which is led by a superintendent and which can draw on experts including specialist detectives and forensic accountants. Two detectives have also recently been appointed to oversee all intelligence gathered about corruption in horse racing.
Superintendent Ryan said: ”Anyone that’s involved in any criminal enterprise in any shape or form and particularly in organised crime, we’ll come chasing it and we’ll make sure that the integrity in any sport, particularly racing … will be upheld.
”Whether it’s a jockey or a trainer or any person involved in it, we will chase them and we will charge them and put them properly before a court of law.”
Anti-corruption measures are much weaker in some states and sports than in others. Victoria is the only state with a full-time racing watchdog.
The NSW government’s efforts to introduce independent scrutiny of its scandal-tainted harness and greyhound racing industry have been beset by problems, with the most recent watchdog appointed, former NSW 0mbudsman David Landa, resigning in protest. He told an investigation by The Age and Four Corners that the oversight model in NSW was ”a fraud on the public” because it lacked any independence or powers.
The Age has been investigating corruption in racing since last year. After racing sources revealed concerns about a race involving Smoking Aces, The Age approached Victoria Police in April and was asked by senior police to withhold reporting on the matter until this week.
For more on the Age/Four Corners investigation, watch Four Corners tonight at 8.30
Inside Mail – 6 August 2012
KERRY O’BRIEN, PRESENTER: The sport of kings and the occasional crook.
Welcome to Four Corners.
Colourful racing identities have always been a part of racing, even though the term has often been a euphemism for shady characters who might be up to no good. Understandable when you consider the number of race meetings taking place around the country every day of the week. With billions of dollars changing hands each year.
Those billions invariably include an unknown amount of illegally obtained money, usually from drugs, that washes through the betting system and comes out clean. One drug baron is reputed to have laundered $80 million in this fashion.
Our story tonight shows how corruption and criminal behaviour on the track are widespread and increasingly difficult to scrutinise. But while horse racing authorities and police often have parallel interests, there’s far less co-operation than you might think, and that police are no taking a close interest in some of Australian racing’s best known names. One trigger for renewed police interest in the industry has been their investigation into the murder of racing identity Les Samba in Melbourne.
And Victoria Police today announced a reward of $1 million for information leading the arrest of his killer or killers.
Reporter Nick McKenzie has been investigating corruption in sport since last year and this investigation by Four Corners and the Age newspaper is the result.
NICK MCKENZIE, PRESENTER: It’s just after nine o’clock on a Sunday night as a guest at Melbourne’s exclusive Crown Metropol Hotel heads out in his hire car.
Les Samba, a colourful Sydney racing and business figure, is in town for the thoroughbred yearling sales.
But tonight he’s on his way to a fateful rendezvous.
DETECTIVE SUPERINTENDANT GERARD RYAN, VICTORIA POLICE: For some unknown reason he had an appointment in Beaconsfield Parade. And he went to that spot. Why he went there and who lured him there we don’t know. So that’s what we’re asking the public to ah really put those last few moments together for us.
JOHN SILVESTER, SENIOR CRIME WRITER, THE AGE: Now why you would decide to meet someone in a street when you were in a major hotel, you could have come in, they could have come to see you, have coffee. Perhaps he didn’t want to be seen with those people. That’s why he chose that what he thought was neutral ground.
NICK MCKENZIE, REPORTER: Samba had a history of dubious business and racing connections. He once worked for Sydney gangster Abe Saffron, and more recently was a close associate of Sydney property developer Ron Medich, who is presently facing murder charges in New South Wales.
JOHN SILVESTER: He certainly showed no indication that he was in fear of his life. However, he was a fellow who knew some very dangerous people. There were business dealings which were non-racing which could have gone pear shaped. He was entrepreneurial and so he went where the money was. So he had many colourful friends, some of them with short tempers.
NICK MCKENZIE: As he parked his car and made his way along the dark street, Les Samba was apparently unaware that he was walking into an ambush.
(Sound of gun fire)
(Excerpt from ABC News report 27 February, 2011)
FEMALE REPORTER: Middle Park, one of Melbourne’s most affluent suburbs, last night became scene of what police say was a premeditated hit.
UNIDENTIFIED DETECTIVE: Ambulance unit attended the scene but this male was found deceased.
FEMALE REPORTER: Mr Samba began to run but was shot several times in the body and head.
DETECTIVE INSPECTOR JOHN POTTER, VICTORIA POLICE (27 February, 2011): This is a clearly horrific incident to happen in a residential street in Melbourne.
NICK MCKENZIE: One of the city’s most upmarket bay-side addresses became the site of a major homicide investigation over the following days.
Police seemed sure of an early breakthrough.
DETECTIVE INSPECTOR JOHN POTTER: We’re confident we will solve this case, we have a number of persons of interest that we’re looking at. And we’ll continue to work through this case.
NICK MCKENZIE: Almost 18 months later, the murder of Les Samba remains unsolved.
But tonight Four Corners can reveal that the police investigation has lifted the lid on allegations of organised crime networks and high-level corruption in horse racing.
Is it correct to say that it’s opened up a real can of worms in respect of racing corruption and if so, how big a can of worms?
DETECTIVE SUPERINTENDANT GERARD RYAN: What, what I can say is that we’ve had to have a look at the racing industry. And doing that as a part of our investigation we need to have a look at has organised crime influenced racing in Victoria and racing anywhere within Australia.
NICK MCKENZIE: Within weeks of the shooting, Les Samba’s daughter, Victoria, made an emotional public plea for information.
(Excerpt from press conference with Victoria Samba)
VICTORIA SAMBA, DAUGHTER: My dad has been taken from us in such a horrific way but no-one can take away the beautiful memories I have of him.
NICK MCKENZIE: Victoria Samba was married to leading jockey Danny Nikolic, who has steered his mounts to victory in some of the nation’s biggest races, including the Caulfield Cup.
Nikolic and Victoria Samba had separated some time before Les Samba was gunned down.
JOHN SILVESTER: Les had involved himself hands on in looking after his daughter which created some bad blood. And that’s one of the areas of course police naturally would look at.
Detectives soon turned their attention to Danny Nikolic, along with others in the racing world, hoping for any clue that would shed light on Les Samba’s murder.
(Question): Is Danny Nikolic or his brother John persons of interest in the ongoing investigation?
DETECTIVE SUPERINTENDANT GERARD RYAN: They’re people we have spoken to and we’d probably like to speak to further, as is a number of other people in the racing industry.
JOHN SILVESTER: In fact Danny Nikolic, the jockey, voluntarily went to police and spoke to them. And that was a long time ago and he hasn’t been charged. So he of course should be afforded the presumption of innocence.
RACE CALLER (Cranbourne): .. racing, great line out … fast away, Dubai Opera sped to the lead from Cyclone Sarah, Stacks on Max and Tycoon Rob going fast with Smoking Aces as they …
NICK MCKENZIE: Two months later, Danny Nikolic was back in the saddle for a race at Cranbourne on Melbourne’s south-eastern fringe.
RACE CALLER (Cranbourne): … Smoking Aces …
NICK MCKENZIE: His horse was called Smoking Aces.
RACE CALLER: … been getting back in the field by retaliating …
NICK MCKENZIE: During the race, the stewards responsible for guarding the integrity of the sport were watching closely.
RACE CALLER (Cranbourne): by Opera and Smoking Aces – first up from …
NICK MCKENZIE: To the eyes of experienced turf-watchers, it was a masterful win by Danny Nikolic on Smoking Aces.
(Question): So Patrick, how’s Nikolic’s run at the moment?
PATRICK BARTLEY, SENIOR RACING WRITER, THE AGE: Nikolic’s riding the, the absolutely magic race. He’s aware of the favourite, where it is. He’s aware …
NICK MCKENZIE: Watching that race, ah, um, would the average punter have sniffed something unusual?
PATRICK BARTLEY: I couldn’t see, no. I there was good and bad luck and it went the way of Danny and it didn’t go the way of the favourite.
NICK MCKENZIE: What was unusual was the relatively heavy betting on Danny Nikolic’s horse on the day of the race, and the identity of the punters who collected up to $200,000 in winnings.
What’s more, the stewards weren’t alone in scrutinising the outcome of the race.
(Question): Are you investigating race fixing?
DETECTIVE SUPERINTENDANT GERARD RYAN: That is one of the allegations that that has been levelled yes.
NICK MCKENZIE: And is there a certain race in particular under, under investigation?
DETECTIVE SUPERINTENDANT GERARD RYAN: There is a certain race under investigation that we’ve made aware of that we need to have a look at.
NICK MCKENZIE: And that’s the race at Cranbourne, the Ride of Smoking Aces?
DETECTIVE SUPERINTENDANT GERARD RYAN: That is correct, yes.
NICK MCKENZIE: The alleged conduct of certain prominent racing figures in connection to the ride of Smoking Aces here at Cranbourne casts a huge cloud over the sport.
It also raises questions about whether authorities and governments have been failing to safeguard an industry worth billions.
SAL PERNA, VICTORIA RACING INTEGRITY COMMISSIONER: The whole vision ofa sport, particularly racing, is that the best animal’s going to win on its own merits. And anything that detracts from that is disgraceful.
DES GLEESON, FORMER CHIEF STEWARD, RACING VICTORIA: Racing is entirely dependent, or significantly dependent on the gambling dollar. And it’s important that people have confidence when they do place a bet that they’re going to get a run for their money.
(Footage of a race meet)
NICK MCKENZIE: From gala metropolitan race meetings to mid-week country fixtures, racing is big business.
Last year Australians spent more than $14 billion betting on thoroughbreds.
The track has long been a drawcard for punters representing a cross section of society, including cashed up criminals, who’ve been targeting the sport for decades.
JOHN SILVESTER: Now in Melbourne your major gangsters can’t actually go and knock on the door at the Melbourne Club and come in and meet judges over stilton and port. But in the racing industry people just blend in and inside information is the currency of the day
NICK MCKENZIE: By the late 1970s Robert Trimbole had graduated from king of the Griffith marijuana trade to membership of a crime syndicate which imported millions of dollars worth of heroin into Australia.
JOHN SILVESTER: According to New South Wales intelligence reports, at one stage he had 13 jockeys on his payroll. His diary when it was seized had numbers of judges, racing officials, jockeys, race callers. And there were a serious of illegal phone taps put on his phone before he fled Australia in 1981. And those tapes showed him talking to jockeys routinely, getting tips and even sharing tips with police.
His bets used to be $20,000 cash. He still lost money. But it’s not about making a profit, because if you can turn say 100 per cent of dirty money into 75 per cent clean money through the track, you’re in front.
NICK MCKENZIE: From their first ride onwards, jockeys across the country are warned that the rules of racing prohibit them passing on inside information or tips about the races they’re competing in.
DES GLEESON: The jockeys are not permitted to tip and under the rules jockeys can’t receive any benefit at all, whether it be financial benefit or otherwise, from anyone other than the owners of the horses. So it’s generally considered that, you know, jockeys are there to ride the horses and give them every possible chance of winning but they’re not in the game for tipping horses and receiving benefits from doing that.
NICK MCKENZIE: In 1995 Australian racing faced a very public crisis.
Revelations that police phone taps had caught Sydney jockeys passing inside information to the head of a drug syndicate and allegedly fixing races hit the headlines in what became known as the Jockey Tapes Scandal.
BOB CARR, FORMER NSW PREMIER (in NSW Parliament, 1995): This government is determined to drive corruption from racing.
RACE CALLER: They won’t catch Jimmy Cassidy, he spears away running home .. Hot Zephyr in front and he’s going to make it six.. Cassidy, the man, the genius.
NICK MCKENZIE: At the centre of the scandal, one of the biggest names in Australian racing: jockey Jim Cassidy, who rode Kiwi from last place to a celebrated win in the 1983 Melbourne Cup.
RACE CALLER (Melbourne Cup, 1983): And here’s Kiwi … Kiwi is flying and Kiwi got up to win the Cup from Nobel Comment and Mr Jazz.
(Excerpt from ABC News 1986)
REPORTER: 6am, Rosehill Racecourse, another opportunity for Jim Cassidy to talk to the horses he’ll be riding at the weekend.
JIM CASSIDY, JOCKEY: By talking to the animal itself and letting it have confidence in you nine times out of 10 you’ve always got full control.
NICK MCKENZIE: When the Australian Jockey Club launched its own inquiry into the jockey tapes scandal, Jim Cassidy admitted he hadn’t just been discussing race tactics with his mounts.
(Excerpt from news report plays)
REPORTER: How you feeling Jim?
LAWYER: He’s got no comment …
NICK MCKENZIE: AJC chief steward, John Schreck, who led the investigation into the Fine Cotton scandal a decade earlier, brought disciplinary charges against Jim Cassidy and two other jockeys implicated by the phone taps.
He was not surprised that a subsequent New South Wales Crime Commission investigation found insufficient evidence to lay criminal charges.
John Schreck maintains it’s virtually impossible for a corrupt jockey to guarantee that a horse will win but it is possible to manipulate the outcome of a race.
JOHN SCHRECK, FORMER CHIEF STEWARD, AJC: You can turn a good thing into a certainty by running the race in a way to suit the good thing. And so, therefore, the manipulation of a race is not impossible unfortunately. I’d like to tell you that it is, but it’s not.
NICK MCKENZIE: The stewards found Jim Cassidy guilty of conduct prejudicial to racing, by pretending to fix races in return for money, and disqualified him from setting foot on a racetrack for three years.
JOHN SCHRECK: He was making this suggestion to the person, the drug dealer guy, that he could fix races and all sorts of things. And of course he wasn’t doing that in, and he couldn’t do that, he wasn’t able to do that. Cassidy was just conning the guy, and successfully, which is not to Jim Cassidy’s credit of course, but that was what was going on.
NICK MCKENZIE: Jim Cassidy appealed against his disqualification, which was later reduced to a 20 month suspension.
JIM CASSIDY (archive footage): There’s life after racing but Jimbo will be back don’t worry about that.
RACE CALLER (Melbourne Cup, 1997): Doremus is coming at him, Doremus after Might and Power… Might and Power and Doremus they … oh it’s close Doremus runs, Doremus runs to the outside. Can he have done it a second time?
NICK MCKENZIE: By 1997 Jim Cassidy was back on the track and celebrating his second Melbourne Cup victory on Might and Power.
RACE CALLER 2 (Melbourne Cup, 1997): What a great finish; that is one of the great finishes in history.
NICK MCKENZIE: He was also forging a relationship with another big punter who would soon earn an even bigger reputation as a major drug trafficker. His name was Tony Mokbel.
DES GLEESON: He was big. Ah he was a big player. He was wagering enormous amounts of money and not only Victoria but right round Australia
JOHN SILVESTER: Tony Mokbel and Bob Trimbole were very similar. They loved the races but they were both extremely personable men. They were likeable. People liked to be with them.
NICK MCKENZIE: Leading crime reporter and author John Silvester, who documented Melbourne’s deadly gangland wars, witnessed Mokbel’s rise in the late 1990s.
As his drug empire grew, Mokbel became a regular at the racetrack, with a crew of cronies nicknamed the Tracksuit Gang who put down large cash bets on his behalf.
JOHN SILVESTER: These were a group of men who would place bets on horses up and down the eastern seaboard in a plunge. On one occasion all with sort of all $100 notes, and when they won they demanded to be paid with new $100 notes. And the Purana Task Force believe that the Mokbel industry, the company, put through $80 million in gaming over this period of time.
NICK MCKENZIE: Tony Mokbel’s influence was not confined to the betting ring.
Despite being charged with drug trafficking in 1998 and again in 2001, Mokbel was being seen around Melbourne, keeping company with leading jockeys.
Victoria’s chief steward, Des Gleeson, became so concerned he warned both Jim Cassidy and his younger rival, champion jockey Danny Nikolic, to stay away from Mokbel.
DES GLEESON: We spoke to quite a number of licensed persons, not only jockeys, trainers as well, and advised them to be careful with who they associated with.
NICK MCKENZIE: Do you think Mokbel was getting inside mail from jockeys?
DES GLEESON: No I don’t think so. Mr Mokbel won money, he lost money. He he was a big player but he wasn’t always successful. He lost huge amounts of money from time to time and I think he was an impulse punter as well. But we’ve no evidence that he was getting information from jockeys, no.
NICK MCKENZIE: But Des Gleeson did not know all that was going on behind the scenes.
He readily admits he was working with one arm tied behind his back, without police powers to tap phones, examine bank accounts or launch full police-style investigations.
DES GLEESON: The stewards don’t have the powers that the police have. We don’t have powers to intercept phone calls or anything like that. We don’t have powers to, as I said, speak to unlicensed persons. And that’s where we need the cooperation of the civil authorities if the need arises.
As Mokbel’s reach into the sport grew, racing officials formally asked police for help on two occasions. But their pleas fell on deaf ears.
DES GLEESON: When the racing squad was disbanded in late 90s there was a complete void until basically 2005 where we received very little information, if any information at all from the civil authorities. And that was disappointing from our perspective.
NICK MCKENZIE: And during that period Mokbel was growing his presence in racing?
DES GLEESON: He was, yes. He was at that time certainly. He’s – he was certainly gaining momentum during that period.
NICK MCKENZIE: With the police effectively sidelined, Mokbel’s relationship with the jockeys, trainers and bookies blossomed, and suspicions grew.
JOHN NOTT: Clearly Mokbel because of being privileged with information, he got four-to-one and seven-to-two and three-to-one, and Joe public wandering in and out of his TAB each day or getting onto his phone account for the market mover, he’d be copping the $3 or $3.10. And there’s the advantage to be had from so-called inside information.
NICK MCKENZIE: A 50 year veteran of trackside punting, John Nott often saw the tracksuit gang in action as they laid big bets for Tony Mokbel.
JOHN NOTT, PUNTER: I noticed that when he backed a Cassidy mount it went particularly well, often won or ran very well. But when he backed two or three others in a race and Cassidy was riding one of the short priced runners, I’ll say it never won or almost never won.
NICK MCKENZIE: Leading bookie, Frank Hudson, had no qualms about taking Tony Mokbel’s cash, even while Mokbel was free on $1 million bail after being arrested and charged with running a $1 billion dollar drug empire.
(Referring to photograph of Tony Mokbel and Frank Hudson)
After this photograph of Mokbel placing bets with Hudson was published by Melbourne’s Herald Sun in 2004, authorities finally moved to ban Mokbel from the track.
JOHN NOTT: There was certainly nothing done until the photo appeared in the paper. I mean he was standing beside Frank Hudson and it was almost a posed photo. So it was no secret.
NICK MCKENZIE: It was only amid the growing death toll of Melbourne’s gangland war that Tony Mokbel’s empire was systematically targeted by a new police task force named Purana.
(Question): Before Purana came along how focused was the Victoria Police in dealing with this Mokbel corruption in racing issue?
JIM O’BRIEN, FORMER HEAD, PURANA TASKFORCE: Well they weren’t. Basically the police department had dropped the ball on anything to do with the racing industry. There was no racing squad, there was nobody monitoring what was happening on the track. It became – basically we, it was a periphery to the investigation we were doing. So yeah there was, there was nothing.
RICHARD LINDELL: In 2005, the Purana taskforce got a new boss, Inspector Jim O’Brien.
O’Brien’s priority was uncovering Mokbel’s involvement in drug trafficking and murder as well as targeting his assets.
Purana discovered Mokbel was cleaning drug money by betting with bookmakers in a manner that would avoid the attention of anti-money laundering agency Austrac.
JIM O’BRIEN: We were well aware of his connection with racing in Victoria. But a lot of the time it was about using others to place those bets on his behalf and breaking down the amounts of those bets so that they weren’t subject to Austrac reporting by bookmakers.
DETECTIVE SUPERINTENDANT GERARD RYAN: There was information being passed on from people within the racing industry to certain individuals that probably placed bets on a knowledge basis that put them ahead of the average punter; that people were utilising bookmakers illegally; and that probably horses were in a third party name and things such as that.
JOHN SILVESTER: There were phone taps that police had which connected Tony with a number of jockeys and trainers. In fact I think seven prominent racing officials ended up being subpoenaed to give evidence at the Australian Crime Commission when they started to follow the money.
NICK MCKENZIE: Before long, police moved in on Mokbel’s assets, which ranged from sports cars to property worth millions of dollars.
Tax authorities also took action in connection to a unit in this apartment tower, which was ostensibly owned by bookie Frank Hudson but which Mokbel helped finance. Hudson was told to cough up unpaid tax linked to this property.
Purana also scrutinised the dealings of trainer Peter Moody, now famous as the trainer of Black Caviar.
In late 2007, Moody was leasing stables owned by the Mokbel family.
He’d also been training a horse called Pillar of Hercules, which was registered in the name of Moody’s wife and the wife of a Mokbel family associate.
But according to a Supreme Court affidavit lodged by Purana, the $475,000 horse had “in fact been purchased by Tony Mokbel’s brother Horty and its ownership details falsified so as to avoid detection by police.”
JIM O’BRIEN: It was paid for by money that was delivered in garbage bags.
NICK MCKENZIE: A bit of a red flag you’d think?
JIM O’BRIEN: Well you’d think that’s not the normal way people do business.
NICK MCKENZIE: In October 2007, Purana seized Pillar of Hercules, alleging in the same affidavit the thoroughbred was bought “as part of a large scale money laundering operation in an attempt to cover up the extent of monies derived from drug trafficking.”
DES GLEESON: That was one instance where we did work closely with the Victoria Police who gave us information in relation to the ownership of the horse. And we immediately stopped it from racing and the horse was sold.
NICK MCKENZIE: Do you think the trainer in question had questions to answer about his role in the affair?
DES GLEESON: Oh we did question Mr Moody at length about the whole scenario but no action was taken against Mr Moody at the time, no.
NICK MCKENZIE: Why not?
DES GLEESON: No evidence to support the charge being laid.
NICK MCKENZIE: Purana investigators also began to zero in on the money Mokbel was paying jockeys.
Four Corners has confirmed they gathered evidence that Mokbel had paid tens of thousands of dollars in secret commissions to jockeys in return for tips. Purana identified at least two leading jockeys were on the Mokbel payroll.
(Question): Why was it helpful for Mokbel to have that in inside information?
JIM O’BRIEN: Well it’s helpful in relation to him being able to launder his assets. I suppose if he’s got odds on favour it’s going to, even if it’s very short money, if he puts up $20,000 and gets $21,000 or $22,000 back he’s still, he’s cleaned that money. He’s got some, he’s got something to show ‘oh this money I won on a bet’ or, you know, ‘I had a bet on such and such a date and here’s a record of it and I can call that bookmaker at my trial if I ever get charged.’
NICK MCKENZIE: Four Corners has confirmed that Jim Cassidy privately admitted to investigators that he’d received almost $100,000 from Mokbel in exchange for tips.
But publicly, Cassidy has denied any improper dealings with Mokbel, instead calling him a friend who he respected.
JOHN SCHRECK: Even in those days, the whole world knew that Mokbel wasn’t much chop and I think it would’ve been better for a high profile race rider like Jim Cassidy to have been saying different things from that.
NICK MCKENZIE: In 2007 investigators also documented allegations that, like Cassidy, Danny Nikolic had enjoyed Mokbel’s largesse.
Nikolic rode at least five horses owned by Mokbel or his associates, but publicly denied ever leaking him any inside mail. No evidence to the contrary was ever produced.
Purana’s investigation should have been a wake-up call for racing. In a way, it was.
The Victorian government commissioned a report from a former judge, Gordon Lewis, which drew on Purana’s investigation into Mokbel to conclude that criminal activity in racing was “rampant”.
Lewis’s 2008 report called for an overhaul in the policing of the sport, finding that “bookmakers, trainers and jockeys” had “improper associations with known criminals.”
RACE CALLER: Racing now, Splendid Choice …
NICK MCKENZIE: But since the release of the Lewis report not a single bookmaker, jockey or trainer has faced any serious repercussions over their dealings with Tony Mokbel.
RACE CALLER: .. note with Hoss Amore winning and Jimmy Cassidy on board.
NICK MCKENZIE (question): How many people in racing, jockeys, trainers, bookies, licensed people actually have been held to account over their dealings with Tony Mokbel?
JIM O’BRIEN: None that I know of.
NICK MCKENZIE: Does that surprise you?
JIM O’BRIEN: Yeah it is surprising.
CHRIS MUNCE, FORMER JOCKEY (to press pack, 2006): Oh steady boys!
NICK MCKENZIE: The way Hong Kong dealt with the case of champion Australian jockey Chris Munce in 2006 stands in stark contrast to the failure of Australian racing to investigate jockeys, trainers and bookies linked to Tony Mokbel.
(Excerpt from News Story on Chris Munce)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (to press): Come on boys, out of the way)
REPORTER: The Melbourne Cup winning rider was detained at his house just hours before scheduled to board a flight to Australia.
NICK MCKENZIE: Chris Munce was arrested with betting details and thousands of dollars in cash in his pockets after lengthy surveillance by Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption.
(Excerpt from News Story on Chris Munce)
REPORTER: Munce was one of seven people arrested after an investigation Hong Kong’s corruption watchdog the Independent Commission Against Corruption. Those detained included four suspected illegal bookmakers. ICAC alleges Munce either recieved or stood to receive almost $300,000 in exchange for tips he provided.
JOHN SCHRECK: In the Munce case, he was deemed to be an employee of the owner of the horse, and he was selling that information to others for profit and therefore was in breach of the law of the land. And went to jail for it.
NICK MCKENZIE: Was that a harsh penalty?
JOHN SCHRECK: Oh no, not at all in my opinion, not at all. No, he knew what the situation was when he went there, as all of them do that go there. And you do the crime, you do the time.
NICK MCKENZIE: Chris Munce was convicted and served 20 months in jail. The Hong Kong Jockey Club gave him an additional suspension which should have prevented him from riding anywhere in the world for almost a year after his release.
But New South Wales racing authorities allowed him back on the track with 10 months of his suspension still to run.
JOHN SCHRECK: The penalty wasn’t reciprocated by Racing New South Wales, it was by all the other states of Australia but not by Racing New South Wales. And so he was allowed to ride back in Australia pretty well straight away. The whole thing was most unfortunate, it should never have happened that way.
NICK MCKENZIE: Without the investigative backup enjoyed by their Hong Kong counterparts, in 2010 Victorian racing authorities were forced to ask again for police help.
Stewards suspected that Danny Nikolic was breaching the rules of racing by passing inside information about his mounts.
Four Corners can reveal that, once again, the Victoria Police declined to help, and left the stewards to go it alone.
REPORTER (2010): Authorities were alerted to Nikolic’s activities after suspicious bets were placed with the betting exchange, Betfair, which allows punters to bet on horses losing.
DANNY NIKOLIC (2010): Good mornnig everybody. I’m here to clear my name.
NICK MCKENZIE: The racing disciplinary board found there was insufficient evidence to prove the charges against Danny Nikolic and he was cleared.
DANNY NIKOLIC (to press, 2010): I was quietly confident, I know that I’ve done nothing wrong. So I was just hoping that the RAV (Racing Association of Victoria) board would see it my way. And I’m very happy now.
NICK MCKENZIE: Were the racing authorities correct to bring the case given they lost?
SAL PERNA: Ah yes, I think that was clearly vindicated by the Appeals and Disciplinary Board. When they heard the charges. The circumstantial evidence if you like, was very, very strong and the Board said that they were very justified in preparing that case.
INTERVIEWER: What couldn’t the racing authorities get in terms of evidence and why couldn’t they get it?
SAL PERNA: Look I think it’s fair to say that the content of the conversations between Danny and the people that were putting the bet on was the, the missing part.
SAL PERNA (to co-investigator): Which is the horse we’re looking at Paul.
PAUL: We’re looking at the one that’s second from the inside out of what we’ll call there barrier five. If you just watch the action of the jockey this should pretty well explain what I was talking about earlier.
NICK MCKENZIE: Sal Perna is Victoria’s full-time Racing Integrity Commissioner, a role created as a result of the Lewis report.
It’s the first appointment of its type in the country.
SAL PERNA (to co-investigator): So is he allowing himself to get boxed in there?
NICK MCKENZIE: While Sal Perna enjoys only limited investigative powers of his own, he’s been striving to get police and racing officials to work together.
(Question): Did you find when you first arrived that the police were sitting on information about corruption in racing that was not being passed to racing authorities and vice versa?
SAL PURNA: Yeah, I think that’s a fair comment.
Part of the difficulty with police releasing information is that some information’s protected by legislation, telephone intercepts for example. And that information can’t be given to non-law enforcement areas.
NICK MCKENZIE: Unbeknown to Sal Perna, a new controversy featuring some familiar names was just around the corner.
After the death of Les Samba early last year, Danny Nikolic continued riding, knowing he was under police scrutiny.
On the 12th of April homicide detectives raided the home of his brother John, a former horse trainer based on Queensland’s Gold Coast.
Two weeks later, Danny Nikolic was here at Cranbourne preparing for his ride on Smoking Aces.
RACE CALLER (Cranbourne): Racing… great line out, Tycoon …
NICK MCKENZIE: The race favourite was Retaliate.
(Footage of race plays)
RACE CALLER (Cranbourne): .. back on the fence… Retaliate has got horses all around him .. he’s last…
NICK MCKENZIE: Also riding in the race was jockey Mark Zahra on Baikal.
Four Corners can reveal that police are investigating whether Nikolic and Zahra had allegedly conspired to reduce Retaliate’s chances of winning, and improving Smoking Aces’ prospect of success.
RACE CALLER (Cranbourne): Smoking Aces wins first up from Retaliate, Dubai Opera third from …
NICK MCKENZIE: Figures linked to the race have alleged to Four Corners that associates of Nikolic had bet heavily on his mount, and that police have recently been quizzing jockeys, trainers and punters about the ride in question.
At a recent race meeting, Four Corners tried to interview Danny Nikolic, who’d just ridden a series of winners.
(at races): Danny I’m Nick McKenzie from Four Corners, We’re not actually here to ask you about today’s race …
DANNY NIKOLIC: Not interested …
NICK MCKENZIE: We’re here to ask you about Smoking Aces Danny. Can I ask you a couple of questions about Smoking Aces?
(Question): Is Danny Nikolic a person of interest in the race fixing investigation?
DETECTIVE SUPERINTENDANT GERARD RYAN: As I said it’s a current investigation and we’ll … I can’t comment on that particular phase of it at this stage
NICK MCKENZIE: Jockey Mark Zahra also declined to answer questions about the Cranbourne race.
Racing sources have confirmed to Four Corners that associates of Nikolic in Melbourne and interstate made bets on Smoking Aces that earned them a combined total of up to $200,000.
(On phone) G’day Paul my name’s Nick McKenzie, reporter for Four Corners, ABC TV. I’m investigating certain race which I believe you had something to do with Cranbourne last year involving ride of Smoking Aces, can I ask you a few questions about that?
Four Corners tried to speak with one punter linked to the win.
(Hanging up phone): No he’s hung up
DETECTIVE SUPERINTENDANT GERARD RYAN: We know that there are a number of identities that we need to talk to interstate and bits and pieces. But at this particular stage we’re concentrating on Victoria. But there are a number of areas that we know, what we need to have a look at.
Detective Superintendent Gerry Ryan is overseeing the police inquiry into the alleged race fixing and the Samba murder.
He’s revealed to Four Corners he’s called in Purana to tackle the fresh allegations of corruption.
GERRY RYAN: We’ll leave no stone unturned. So that means we’ll look at a number of races and you know and a number of areas that unfold as the investigation goes. But it’s important to, at the end of this investigation, to make sure that the integrity in racing here in Victoria and nationally is squeaky clean.
NICK MCKENZIE: Whatever the outcome of that investigation, the former head of Purana, Jim O’Brien, says authorities are yet to prove they can effectively combat corruption in sport.
(Question): How good has that job of protecting the integrity of racing been in your view?
JIM O’BRIEN: It’s not been good at all. It’s been extremely poor and in part brought about because you know the stewards themselves who look after those codes haven’t got the teeth – they’re not investigators for a start.
NICK MCKENZIE: But Gerry Ryan says authorities in Victoria have learned from the mistakes of the past.
DETECTIVE SUPERINTENDANT GERARD RYAN: Look, yes we can say that we did take our eye off the ball. And that’s why Purana is so strong today because we we realised that we needed to get back into this arena and we have.
NICK MCKENZIE: And those who say that the police will never be able to to catch a race fix they’re not up to the task?
DETECTIVE SUPERINTENDANT GERARD RYAN: Well that’s what they said about the gangland slayings and what, what’s happened there? We’ve put them all behind bars.
NICK MCKENZIE: Victoria’s racing integrity chief, Sal Perna, says that even if state police and racing officials get it right, if the rest of the country doesn’t follow suit, it will be for nothing.
(Question): If you’re a jockey in Victoria at the moment, you know, you can go interstate and possible have far less scrutiny over your activities.
SAL PERNA: Yes, I would agree with that.
INTERVIEWER: How unhealthy is that?
SAL PERNA: Well, it can’t be good. It creates vulnerabilities and we don’t want that. We want the same standard to apply when it comes to integrity right across the board.
In New South Wales, two harness racing stewards and a trainer are facing criminal charges over alleged corruption.
The state’s greyhound racing industry also has a history tainted by scandal.
Last year the New South Wales government appointed former ombudsman David Landa, to oversee the integrity of both racing codes.
But within months he quit both posts, believing his role amounted to window dressing.
DAVID LANDA, FORMER NSW INTEGRITY AUDITOR: I felt that apart from the role being ineffective and not capable of performing what I felt the legislators may have intended. It was a fiction and it was a fraud really on the public.
NICK MCKENZIE: A fraud on the public?
DAVID LANDA: Yes because they were led to believe that there was an integrity auditor capable of dealing with issues that ought to be dealt with, matters of integrity, matters of honesty, matters of fair dealing and that those powers were not able to be performed.
NICK MCKENZIE: In the new world of internet betting, people can bet to win or lose, and on any number of other outcomes in almost any sport, anywhere.
SAL PERNA: They create opportunities for people to corrupt players, to do certain things that they can benefit from by betting on. We’ve also got a new model now with betting exchanges where you can actually bet on an animal to lose, and that hasn’t been part of the Australian culture today. So they do present challenges.
NICK MCKENZIE: The explosion of internet and exotic betting has sparked debate about the policing of sport across the country.
JOHN SCHRECK: horse racing’s not too bad, there are things go on that’s simply inexcusable, of course there are. But generally speaking it’s not too bad. So I don’t there’s any need for any national integrity controller all over the sport, no. I think the States should be left to their own device, that’s the way it’s been for 150 years and I think it’s been pretty good.
NICK MCKENZIE: Does there need to be a national body?
SAL PERNA: I think there does so that we can work together on it and address issues not only nationally but internationally. It’s about bringing in specialists that are, specialist investigators, specialist analysts and wagering analysts, and bringing in all the bodies together so they can share information and work out how to do it in a concerted way.
JOHN SILVESTER: The iron law of crime is where there is a demand there will be a supply. As soon as a Tony Mokbel is locked up there is someone else to take their place. So it’s about getting the structures right with racing because right now there would be somebody somewhere chatting to a jockey trying to get some inside information. And if he’s got a pocketful of drug money, then he’s got a better chance of getting the answer he wants to hear.
NICK MCKENZIE: Tony Mokbel is now serving a 30 year prison sentence for drug trafficking, but there’s another Mokbel still on the punt.
His brother Horty, another convicted drug trafficker, has been banned from racetracks and the casino by order of the Victorian government.
But over several weeks Four Corners observed him and a group of fellow punters in tracksuits placing numerous bets at a suburban Melbourne TAB.
Horty Mokbel’s regular companions include underworld identity and racehorse owner Paul Sequenzia.
Sequenzia, the brother in law of murdered gangster Mark Moran, had drug trafficking charges dropped in 2004.
Sequenzia is part-owner of a horse called Em Maguane, in 2009 it became one of the first horses in Australia to test positive for the performance enhancing drug EPO (Erythropoietin).
In the racing world, Tony Mokbel’s place is most likely already filled.
JIM O’BRIEN: There’s plenty of succession planning in criminal organisations and someone else will just step up and fill his shoes. So it won’t go away.
JOHN SILVESTER: Now it’s not just a matter of Tony Mokbel or Bob Trimbole but it could be a crime syndicate from anywhere in the world who could target a sport, one game, one event, one cricket match, one over, one ball, and that’s the new challenge.
NICK MCKENZIE: Despite commitments from the federal and state governments, there are still no specific laws dealing with match or race fixing.
Without a national sports integrity body some states and sports remain well behind the others when it comes to confronting the challenge of corruption.
(Question): How urgent are those changes needed?
DES GLEESON: Well, I think they should have been done yesterday but as soon as possible before there’ll be an almighty scandal in sport in Australia.
NICK MCKENZIE: That scandal may have already arrived.
The fallout from Les Samba’s murder and allegations of corruption at the highest levels in racing still has a long way to run.
DETECTIVE SUPERINTENDANT GERARD RYAN: Certainly I believe that if we we’re able to solve the race fixing and solve the issues that that are emerging, we will certainly solve the murder.
INTERVIEWER: Are you confident the murder of Les Samba will be solved?
GERRY RYAN: I’m confident it will be solved, yes.
KERRY O’BRIEN: Four Corners asked jockeys Danny Nikolic and Mark Zahra on the allegations raised by they both declined.
Bookie, Frank Hudson, and jockey, Jim Cassidy, also declined to be interviewed.
Four Corners also asked trainer Peter Moody to talk about his dealings with Horte Mokbel; he also declined.
End of transcript
LATEST NEWS UPDATES
Top racing figures embroiled in corruption scandal | ABC News | 6 Aug 2012 – Police are investigating a string of top Australian horse racing figures, including champion jockey Danny Nikolic, for alleged race fixing, in what is shaping up as the biggest corruption scandal to hit the sport in decades. By Nick McKenzie, Clay Hichens and Richard Baker.
Police offer $1m reward over Samba murder | ABC News | 6 Aug 2012 – Victoria Police have offered a $1 million reward for information about the death of racing identity Les Samba… Purana Taskforce detectives are leading the investigation and believe it was not a random shooting.
$1 million reward announced – Les Samba murder | Vic Police | 6 Aug 2012 – Victoria Police has today announced a $1 million reward for information regarding the death of Les Samba in Middle Park on Sunday 27 February, 2011. Read the press release.
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Sports Betting Review – Report and Government Response | 31 Mar 2011 – The report of the 2011 Review of Victorian Sports Betting Regulation completed by Mr Des Gleeson and the Government’s response to the recommendations of the Review are on the Department of Justice website.
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Report finds organised horse racing industry is tainted by organised crime | Stateline Victoria | 15 Aug 2008 – The transcript of Josephine Cafagna’s 2008 report into horse racing corruption.
Top jockey took Mokbel cash in return for tips | Brisbane Times | 14 Jun 2008 – One of Australia’s leading jockeys, Jimmy Cassidy, accepted bundles of cash from alleged crime boss Tony Mokbel in return for tips about horses he was riding. By Nick McKenzie.
Fine Cotton mastermind scandal | The Daily Telegraph | 18 Apr 2008 – The mastermind of the infamous Fine Cotton Affair has struck again, with a multi-million dollar scam involving a $44 million horse race, a Gold Coast nightclub singer, a former rugby league great, an art swindle and Muslim terrorist death threats.
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Protecting the integrity of racing
August 7, 2012
ONE WOULD be hard pressed to name a more symbiotic commercial relationship than that of betting and horse racing. Each derives huge financial benefit from the other. So it is, then, a matter of concern when that relationship is called into question through allegations of corruption.
The Age yesterday – in conjunction with Four Corners last night – reported that police were investigating well-known horse racing figures, including jockey Danny Nikolic, over the alleged fixing of a race at Cranbourne in April 2011, which was won by the horse Smoking Aces. The alleged tampering was uncovered during an investigation into the murder two months earlier of trainer Les Samba in Melbourne. There is no suggestion that Nikolic was involved in the death of Samba. There are, however, serious issues at play, such as allegations of money laundering, tax fraud and tipping, which involves jockeys disclosing inside information for commission.
Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner Graham Ashton said yesterday there was no endemic corruption in horse racing. But, in an industry that must be seen to be conducted without the merest whiff of corruption, this is a case where one is one too many.
More than 4000 horse races are held annually in this state. Racing Victoria, in its report for 2010-2011, said that although 9000 horses had competed, ”the headlines were stolen by one horse, Black Caviar”.
This is true. But, as The Age has revealed more than once, there is more than one story to the industry, and those ones sow the seeds of doubts in the public’s mind as to the probity of what they are watching. Detective Superintendent Gerard Ryan, who confirmed the investigation, said it was important ”that the integrity of racing … is squeaky clean”.
It is towards this latter point that, more broadly, Victoria seems to be making progress. There is a police ”sport corruption response model”, which looks promising on paper. The proof will be in its results.
It would be naive to believe that all sport can be entirely clean. With such large amounts of money at stake, the temptation to cheat is always there. That being so, there is merit in the calls for a national body, with anti-corruption powers, to be established to maintain sport’s integrity.
Commenting on the Smoking Aces disclosures, Racing Victoria’s integrity commissioner, Sal Perna, said: ”My immediate response is, is the industry that bad?” Purely on the numbers, no. Yet integrity in sport is only as strong as its weakest link. It needs to be protected comprehensively by all governments.