In a huge blow to the Queensland Racing Integrity Commission (QRIC), trainer Ben Currie has today had his period of disqualification on seven counts of presenting a horse to race with a prohibited substance in its system in breach of Austrian racing rule AR.178 reduced from 2 years and 3 months back to just 12 months.
Last year the QRIC Stewards found Currie guilty of 5 counts of race day presentation, in relation to the horses Wicked Trilogy, Karaharaga, Eight Over, Dreamscope, and Shakira. The trainer was fined a total of $45 000 and disqualified from racing for 27 months.
Currie contested the penalties imposed in relation to the horses Eight Over, Dreamscope and Shakira.
These original penalties handed to Currie by the Stewards were:
Wicked Trilogy – $10 000 fine
Karaharaga – $20 000 fine
Shakira – $15 000 fine
Dreamscope – 12 month disqualification
Eight Over – 24 month disqualification
At internal review, the QRIC amended the sentences delivered to Currie by Stewards to the following:
Wicked Trilogy – $5 000
Karaharaga – $5 000
Shakira – 6 month disqualification
Dreamscope – 9 month disqualification
Eight Over – 12 month disqualification
The Internal Reviewer ordered that the periods of disqualification be served cumulatively (one after the other) rather than concurrently (at the same time), meaning that Currie was disqualified for a total period of 27 months.
Unlike the prison system, in racing a sentenced person cannot apply for parole or remissions on their sentence for good behaviour, so Currie was out for the full two years and a quarter.
Not any more.
The QRIC must have known it was cactus before the QCAT hearings began, for the Commission’s legal representatives tried to cut a deal with Currie that would have allowed him to serve the 9 month Dreamscope disqualification cumulative with (at the same time as) the 12 months the Toowoomba Tornado received for Eight Over, meaning that Currie would serve a total of 18 months rather than the 27 imposed at internal review.
Curries legal team of Michael O’Connor (solicitor) and Jim Murdoch QC (barrister) aren’t widely known as the dream team for nothing though, and on their advice the Tornado resisted all overtures and decided to fight on, although a decision was made by the Currie team allow the reduced $5000 fines each for Karaharaga and Wicked Trilogy to stand, and instead concentrate their appeal efforts of the three larger sentences.
In a victory for common sense, the QCAT today sat the outset set aside completely the penalty imposed after the mare Shakira had returned a positive result for Testosterone.
The tribunal found that – as Ben Currie had been saying all along – the Victorian mare had been sent to him by its owners from the stables now-disgraced trainer Robert Smerdon, as part of the mass-scale transfer of horses out of the Aquanita stables to other trainers around the country after the trainers from that racing operation were charges with an array of serious offences in early 2018.
The mare had only been in Currie’s stables for 14 days when it raced first up for the trainer and returned the positive testosterone swab. QCAT found that
- testosterone is a substance with a long half-life that remains in a horses system for a considerable period
- Currie had no cause to suspect that the drug may have been administered to Shakira by its previous trainer (each of the 78 findings of guilt against Smerdon that saw him warned off for life related to bicarb drenches)
- Testosterone is not a performance enhancing drug when administered to mares
- On the balance of probabilities it was Smerdon, not Currie or anyone associated with his stable that administered
In these circumstances QCAT determined that Currie had no culpability for the test result, and set aside all penalty.
Currie was notified on 14 December 2018 that Dreamscope had returned a positive swab for trace elements of cocaine, although the QCAT noted that there was a failing in the Queensland Racing Laboratory testing processes in so far as the actual quantity or amount of cocaine found in the horses test were not quantified.
As such, the tribunal agreed with Murdoch QC’s submissions and treated the offences as merely presentation of an unspecified trace amount of the drug caused by environmental contamination, as opposed to a large level that would suggest that the horse had actually been administered cocaine.
Taking into account the $9 000 fine issued to Currie in January 2017 after his stable runner Party Til Dawn had returned a positive swab to methamphetamine in similar circumstances after racing in Central Queensland the previous year – and noting Currie’s carelessness in not implementing a warning/advice process to his stable staff, and that previous penalty precedents issued to other trainers were of the nature of fines rather than disqualification – the QCAT set aside the 12 month disqualification and issued Currie with a $50 000 fine in its place.
The QCAT found the significant factor in this case to be that Eight Over’s positive swab to trace elements of cocaine had been taken at a race meeting in Toowoomba on 2 February 2018, seven weeks after Currie had been notified of the Dreamscope positive swab.
This seven week gap between the notification about Dreamscope’s positive swab and the date Eight Over raced had allowed Currie sufficient time to implement, or attempt to implement, some measures to prevent environmental contamination of his stable runners by cocaine and other recreational drugs, the use of which was rife in the racing industry, the tribunal found.
Whilst acknowledging the large size and scope of the Currie Racing stable, and the large number of staff employed by it, the tribunal nevertheless determined that Currie should have taken steps to issue warning and advice to his staff about the dangers they posed of contaminating horses if they had or were using recreational drugs privately.
The tribunal further found that after notification of the Dreamscope positive swab, Currie should have made (unspecified) efforts to identify how the horse had been contaminated by the minute traces of cocaine, and investigated what measures he might have put in place to prevent it from happening again, as it did less than two months later with Wicked Trilogy.
Currie failure to do either was described by the tribunal as a degree of apathy that was sufficient to elevate his culpability from mere carelessness to one of blameworthiness sufficient to warrant a penalty higher than the usual fine.
In these circumstances the 12 month period of disqualification on this charge was confirmed.
Where to From Here?
Ben Currie’s 12 month period of disqualification began on 19 July 2019, and expires on the 18th of July 2020, meaning that provided he pays the $50 000 fine and the previous two $5000 fines, in just over a fortnight’s time the Tornado will have served his full sentence for each of these five presentation charges.
The trainer is still facing criminal charges of aggravated fraud, although based on the outline of evidence to date it is almost impossible to see those charges surviving past the committal hearing stage.
There is also the matter of the 30 month disqualification Currie is serving on charges of bringing racing into disrepute that relate to the alleged meaning of the contents of a handful of text messages that the QRIC have interpreted as relating to the use of jiggers, although the evidence is very slim on those charges too. Currie’s appeal against those disqualifications was heard by the QCAT late last year, and a decision is expected to be handed down at some stage in the near future.
In addition there are number of miscellaneous smaller penalties for guilt findings on charges that Currie denies. These are also subject to appeal, and awaiting decisions.
Put short, Ben Currie still faces a long road ahead before he can get back to the track and win that long dreamed of Group 1, but this first-up appeal result today is certainly a most encouraging sign that he may just have a far more successful preparation ahead of him than many of his multitude of critics imagined.