Surprise tactics, smarts keep stewards ahead of the game

It is like a scene from a Dick Francis novel. Just 12 hours ago, I was told to wait at a designated spot on the side of the Moorooduc Highway near Mornington at 9.30am sharp. No other instructions.

At exactly the designated time, a Toyota pulls up and two men dressed in jeans, T-shirts and runners invite me to get in. I’m half expecting them to place a black hood over my head.

The Racing Victoria compliance assurance team has agreed to take me on a stable raid to find out what they are looking for – and what they are up against.

Stewards Dion Villella and Mark Stevens have increased the frequency of their raids in recent months, with some success.

Over the past three months, this tightly knit squad has managed to bring to racing authorities’ attention five high-profile cases. Sydney trainer Con Karakatsanis and his father, Tony, face serious charges over alleged stomach tubing of a horse on Derby day, Queensland trainer Nathan Schofield has been banned for a year on a similar charge and Robert Smerdon has been fined $10,000 for an alleged treatment on race day. Inquiries into Jim Conlan and Ricky Maund are continuing.

Villella shrugs off suggestions of heroics in the famous Schofield case, when the steward jumped the fence of the trainer’s rented stable in Geelong.

”I must be frank,” he says. ”You are a bit of a goose if you jump fences all the time and we don’t. But on that occasion, we were not going to let a second go by. We had done a lot of background work on that case, and couldn’t let things slip.”

The team has become famous enough to earn a few nicknames – the famous flying squad, the Untouchables.

They tell me the plans for this morning. ”We are going to a stable in Mornington,” Villella says. ”The races are here [Mornington] today and at Moonee Valley tonight. At this stage, the stable we have selected will be examined but if we find something not right, like the trainer has placed a ‘cocky’ or a lookout at the front gate, we will drive on.

”But we can’t envisage any problems. We have checked things out and it looks like a matter of going straight in. You see some trainers post guards with a mobile phone, and they will alert those inside we are approaching.”

Some trainers have taken their own counter measures to try to avoid detection. ”Some stables that we are aware of have systems in place to beat us, so we just adopt the policy of building more ‘intel’ [intelligence] to a point where we have everything covered and then make our move,” Villella says.

He says raids are conducted around the clock. They have been known to arrive at 1am and wait until the first stablehand reports for work before they move in. ”We study the lay of the land,” Villella says. ”We know what truck should be there and shouldn’t be there. What locks are applied to what gates and when. We have flagged trainers whose horses have returned unusually high TCO [total carbon dioxide] readings and they are monitored.”

After travelling down a dusty road at the back of the Mornington racecourse, the stable selected looms large out of the dust.

We get out of the car and Villella and Stevens stride towards the 40-strong stable barn ahead. ”The first thing you have to watch for is a trainer or foreman engaging you in small talk,” Villella says. ”Once they go over the weather for the third time you well and truly work out that they are stalling.

”If that’s the case, we split up. I go to the horse running that day and Mark goes to the treatment cupboard.

”After doing this for over three years, I can tell you the body language is the best giveaway.”

On entering the stable, all is quiet. Villella and Stevens make for the trainer’s office close to the stables and yards. The business manager emerges, on the phone. Once he hangs up he explains the trainer is home preparing for the races.

”Good morning, we are here to do an inspection of the stables,” Villella tells the business manager. ”I see you have runners at Mornington and Moonee Valley, we would also like to check them.”

The business manager is amenable, he knows the drill, and also knows to refuse them is asking for trouble. Within seconds, a head collar is produced, and Villella removes the rug from the horse and starts his examination.

First, the horse is scanned to check its registered name. As a double-check the investigators call out the brands.

Villella inspects the neck of the horse. He runs his hand carefully down both sides of its jugular, mainly looking for the presence of blood or any evidence of dry blood, a telltale sign of recent treatment.

Smerdon was fined $10,000 after his stayer was found with dried blood on its neck the morning before a race at Caulfield.

”You see with this horse, like many others, they will have syringe marks from treatment in the past. What we look for is any very recent treatment,” he says.

Villella, a former jockey who joined Racing Victoria in 1995, stops and looks closely at the water bucket in the corner of the day yard.

”We always check the water bucket. It’s become a trend for some trainers who have a horse that has bled in public or private to dehydrate the horse on race day.

”Keeping water away from the animal on race day is said to be a preventive from he or she bleeding that afternoon when it races.”

We move to the treatment cupboard. Stevens gently opens the door and photographs every level before touching the contents. Then with his iPhone the young steward brings up photos of outlawed narcotics, and looks for similar containers in the treatment cabinet. ”We have a very good exchange of information relationship with Australian Customs,” Villella says. ”They have given us some valuable insights into illegal drugs and possible go-fast drugs that could have found their way on to the Australian black market.

”They have given us pictures of how they will be disguised and then relabelled and repackaged. So it’s a good start … Of course, there are lines of intelligence we don’t discuss.”

While Stevens goes through the three-level cupboard, Villella asks for the treatment book and pores over it. ”Now here, I see a list of treatments but no name next to it, so we can’t establish who’s given what to who.

”In the future, I want to see the treatment and next to it the name of the horse. And I see here your vet has not signed off at the bottom of page. I assume you have the same vet, well then, he or she must sign off.”

While Stevens diligently examines test tubes and lotions from the cupboard, he collates other information to be entered into a huge database the team has established. How many yards, how many horses, what they have been treated with, and any other significant insights are fed back to Melbourne.

Villella then asks the business manager why the treatment book and cupboard have been moved since their last visit?

A leading question. Villella says in a handful of cases recently, trainers have established an A treatment cupboard and then a B cupboard that is kept under cover.

”We have run across some cases where the treatment obligations have been met to the letter of the law but we then discover a bar fridge away from prying eyes that can be filled with some interesting items,” he says.

On this occasion, the change was for convenience. Villella inspects the old storage spot, and finds it is now a home for some retired bandages and towels. He wishes the stable well and we move on to another.

I ask Villella why the amount of detections spiked when they did. ”I can only put it down to the spring carnival and the huge amount of prizemoney that is up for grabs over that time,” he says.

The steward is pleased the team has been expanded and further resourced but knows their best weapon is the element of surprise. As Racing Victoria chief vet Brian Stewart said recently: ”A good anti-doping strategy needs to be unpredictable … Let me assure you, we are going to be unpredictable.”

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.


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