Four Corners episode serves up racing’s cocktail of mixed fortunes

Once upon a time, the tipple of choice for trainers seeking an edge was brandy. The thinking was a drop of the hard stuff would give their gallopers the speed, stamina and courage that is nowadays more often exhibited by the racecourse fun-lovers, who were shown having a good time on the recent ABC Four Corners episode.

The spirit of racing was being toasted in champagne flutes on Everest day, with Peter Vlandys, the strongman of the NSW industry, supplying the message:“Thirty-five-year-olds dont like tradition."

Sport of kings: The horse at the centre of the Aquanita scandal, Lovani, wins at Flemington in 2017.

Photo: AAP

The Four Corners episode titled "The Sport Of Kings" that aired on Monday night dealt with the modern underbelly of the turf, whereby the performance-enhancing substances and techniques have become more scientific. It was a forensic review, although in some aspects it was nitpicking.

The Victorian administration fared badly, as anticipated, due to the recent cobalt debacle and the chapter dealing with the Aquanita Eight.

Like brandy, cobalt is a breach of the rules but it is also an equine hit of questionable potency. For example, sodium bicarbonate, the top-up known as a milkshake that can be nefariously given to horses close to starting time, has more effect on performance.


Nothing can make a slow horse faster, but getting a maximum effort on the chosen day is the target edge-seekers have sought since the Byerley Turk (1680-1706).

There was a time when trainers were more horsemen who developed their own cocktails, but now vets and chemists have come into play.

Four Corners also questionned Vlandys on the current issues, yet the industry in NSW under his control is booming.

Alas, Victoria is making heavy weather with integrity, highlighted by the Aquanita Eight – 271 counts of race-day rule breaches following the apprehension of stable hand Greg Nelligan “treating” Lovani at Flemington last spring, the last of what appears to have been a long succession over a considerable period.

Nelligan, his wife Denise, and high-profile trainer Robert Smerdon were disqualified for life. Smerdon is appealing the ban as well as the $90,000 fine imposed on him.

While Nelligans mobile phone carrying the incriminating evidence was confiscated by stewards at Flemington, Four Corners stressed no similar action was taken against Smerdon, who appeared to have a cosier run than those involved in the cobalt positives.

“Maybe we should have in hindsight, knowing what we subsequently knew after Mr Nelligans phone was imaged,” Terry Bailey, Racing Victoria chief steward at the inquiry, commented on radio station RSN. “But we made a decision on the day … charges were proven and Mr Smerdon got a life ban.”

Other revelations on Four Corners included Flemington trainer Matt Ellerton alerting stewards years ago about suspicions regarding Aquanita.

“The audacity of doing it on the racecourse itself … doing it under everyones nose … couldnt have imagined it,” Ellerton divulged.

Bailey maintained he didnt have any recollection of a conversation with the trainer, nor any report regarding it.

Four Corners was keen to pick up on the RSPCA's campaign against the wastage of thoroughbreds, with horrifying sights of scrawny nags, knackery-bound for pet or even human consumption, difficult to show considering their condition.

VLandys has instituted a better life strategy for has-been horses, with even a retirement ranch on the horizon. Four Corners pointed out that two NSW-breds were found in a Queensland knackery. But his plan to track the whereabouts of our horses following retirement has only been operational since 2016. Give it time.

Country racing in NSW also came under the microscope, featuring a Bathurst meeting with seemingly more horses than people.

Big city and provincial trainers are invading the bush, which was subject of criticism but the policy is relevant. From a tote revenue viewpoint, country racing has never been stronger.

Four Corners made the tongue tie, which is vital gear in equine breathing, look like torture. Uncomfortable for a short period possibly, but it has been closely examined by independents and found acceptable.

Of course, wherever Vlandys is seen or heard, The Everest will be prominent, and the racecourse scene heading “The Sport Of Kings” had the vibe of models at a photo shoot, no tongues ties and far removed from a brandy to lift a good thing.

Forgive the sentiment, but racing in Australia has always been the sport of the people, more punters than boozers.

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