Claim horses drugged to frame trainer
Horses from a leading harness racing stables must have been deliberately doped by an outside party, an appeal hearing in Auckland has heard.
The claims emerged during an appeal into a $14,000 fine handed down to leading trainer Robert Dunn and his son John, after three of their horses returned positive tests for caffeine last June.
Robert Dunn, who operates the country’s second most successful stable behind only the Mark Purdon – Natalie Rasmussen juggernaut, is adamant his trio was deliberately spiked with a powerful cocktail of easily detectable drugs to frame him. It is believed to be the country’s first case of someone nobbling horses to win, not lose – if any of the horses won, post-race tests would inevitably reveal they had been doped and their trainer would be in the gun.
But Dunn said the opportunity to prove foul play was lost when the Racing Integrity Unit stumbled in its investigation. At the centre of the claims is an incriminating phone call to a fellow Canterbury trainer informing him that the Dunn stable had three positive swabs coming meeting.
The caller, a former Dunn stable employee whose name was suppressed by appeal tribunal chairman Murray McKechnie, somehow knew that Rishi, Hayden’s Meddle and Billy Badger, who won five races between them at the two-day meeting, would test positive even before officials knew of the breaches.
Affidavits obtained by Dunn’s private detective from the person called, and his father, pinned the date of the call down to June 18, just seven days after the meeting.
Given the racing laboratory did not declare the presence of caffeine in the samples until July 4 and did not confirm it until July 6 – meaning the RIU did not even know the result – it was damning evidence. How could this person have known of the impending positives unless he had been involved in the nobbling or knew who did it?
Dunn’s counsel Paul Dale, who provided the RIU with this crucial information in October, and also alerted police, told the appeal tribunal he would have expected the RIU’s first duty would be to confirm from the two-day the date of the telephone call, which would have elevated the nobbling claim from suspicion to fact.
But during its nine-month probe, racing’s policing body never sought the telephone records of the man or the person he called.
Instead the RIU interviewed the man who, represented by lawyer Murray Branch, was less than cooperative and declined to answer a number of questions.
A senior Christchurch detective engaged by the RIU to review the case never quizzed the man or the person he called about the date and could not be persuaded by Dale of the importance of this discovery.
‘‘Yet here was an allegation of very serious criminal conduct,’’ Dale told the tribunal.
Chris Lange, appearing for the RIU, said it did not have the power to seek telephone records, but Dale told how he had recited to the detective sections of the Crimes Act that allowed for it.
Dale followed up with the RIU in December but eventually was forced to file himself in the High Court for third-party discovery of the phone records. He wrote to Vodafone to get the records but after a lengthy delay, Vodafone replied that it no longer had them as six months had elapsed.
Lange described as speculative the fact that further evidence may have strengthened the argument that a third party was responsible.
The committee took into account that possibility by not ruling it out completely, Lange submitted, but noted that the CIB detective’s review found the RIU’s investigation to be ‘‘detailed, thorough and robust’’.
Dale submitted that had the RIU better investigated the telephone call, and the caller been questioned in a formal hearing, motive might have been established.
The Dunn camp has its own suspicions about why they were targeted but is adamant that – based on the excretion time of caffeine – the horses were doped at their stables at least 48 hours before they raced and before they travelled north.
Lay advocate Leo Molloy, who acted for Dunn at the original hearing in March, says whoever was responsible knew what they were doing. The horses were hit with a powerful cocktail – caffeine, a stimulant, and phenylbutazone, a potent analgesic, designed to make them run faster and feel less pain. Both were high profile, easily detectable drugs.
Rishi, Hayden’s Meddle and Billy Badger were all found to have ‘‘bute’’ in their systems, but only one horse was marginally over the threshold and within the margin of error.
Molloy, who negotiated for no charges to be laid over the painkiller, told the appeal tribunal the RIU’s failure to pursue the telephone records was just one of a raft of ‘‘dead bodies’’ that it was keen to bury by agreeing to pursue just a $4000 fine.
In his submissions, Dale pointed to the lengths Dunn went to try to prove his team was got at.
Dunn calculates it has cost him close to $50,000, including legal and private detective fees and a new $20,000 camera surveillance system of his entire property. He also compensated the owners who lost winning stakes by remitting training fees.
The damage to his business has been incalculable, he said. McKechnie, who reduced the fine to $7800, said it was not the tribunal’s job to solve the nobbling mystery ‘‘but if the man who made the telephone call was in some way responsible it seems a foolish thing to do to advise people in advance’’.
Also foolish was the phone text, which Dunn showed the chairman, from the same person who made the phone call, to one of Dunn’s stable employees.
Sunday Star-Times cannot name the trainer referred to, but it read: ‘‘Me and . . . will have the last laugh, whatever happens’’.
Billy Badger, above, winning the Nelson Pine Industries Winter Cup in Nelson last year, was one of three horses from stables operated by Robert Dunn and son John, right, dosed with performance enhancing drugs, including caffeine.