Top trainers O'Brien and Kavanagh escape ban in Melbourne cobalt controversy
The controversial cobalt case that has cast a shadow over racing in Melbourne drew to a close on Tuesday when leading trainers Danny O'Brien and Mark Kavanagh escaped without a ban of any sort in the long-running saga.
More than three years after it began, fines of A$8,000 (£4,500/€5,000) and A$4,000 were handed out respectively to two of the biggest names in Melbourne racing circles under the 'presentation' rule – in effect, allowing their horses to run with an elevated quantity of cobalt in their system.
O'Brien, fined A$8,000 for four over-the-threshold readings, is a multiple Group 1-winning trainer with a Cox Plate and AJC Derby on his CV, while Kavanagh won the Melbourne Cup with Shocking in 2009.
However, Tuesday's verdict can be regarded as a victory for the pair as they had originally been disqualified by racing authorities for knowingly administering cobalt, only for that decision to be overturned by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT).
Racing Victoria took the case to the Court of Appeal, the state's highest court, which agreed the trainers should be penalised for presentation but that neither had knowledge of how the substance got into their horses.
The latter accusation – the so-called 'cheating' charge – was the one that carried a major suspension but Dr Tom Brennan, the vet who attended both Flemington stables, was found to have administered a drip containing illegal levels of cobalt without the trainers' knowledge. The vet has denied knowing the supplements he was giving the horses contained cobalt.
Although the potential effects of cobalt remain a subject of discussion, it is a banned substance in racing because it is believed it can help increase endurance and reduce recovery time when given to horses.
The highest-profile casualty of the entire affair was Black Caviar's trainer Peter Moody, who quit in March 2016 after being banned for 12 months for charges involving presentation. He, too, was cleared of any administration charges.
Justice Greg Garde of the VCAT meted out the penalties to Kavanagh and O'Brien on Tuesday over the cobalt cases, which involved five positive readings for horses who competed between October and December 2014.
According to AAP Racing, Justice Garde said in his judgement that the financial losses incurred by the trainers since the case began were substantial.
"Kavanagh's business lost A$200,000 over a two-year period," the judgment said. "Whereas prior to January 14, 2015 he had 35-40 staff, by the time he gave evidence to the Tribunal in October 2016 he had only ten staff. His stable of about 120 horses had reduced to 25 horses."
He said O'Brien's stable of 180-200 horses had reduced to 70-75 over the same period, and his staff from 50 to about 30.
Three horses (including dual winner Benchmark) trained by O'Brien and Kavanagh's Flemington winner Magicool were those found to have cobalt readings over the permitted raceday threshold. Each horse involved has been disqualified and prize-money forfeited.
"Taking into account the submissions made by the parties, and all of the considerations that they have urged, a fine should be imposed on each of the trainers, in a moderate amount," added Justice Garde.
O'Brien said he was relieved at the outcome.
"If we had been charged with presentation in the first place the matter would have been over in two weeks," the trainer said.
"We would have pleaded guilty and paid the fine. Instead we have been pursued for three years over administration and it is there in black and white in the judgement that we had no knowledge of the administration. I'm glad it is basically all over and we can move on from here."
However, both trainers' legal teams are understood to have issued a demand to Flemington Equine Clinic in a bid to recoup damages to their businesses. They will also seek to claim a portion of their costs from Racing Victoria for the long-running case at VCAT.
In the aftermath of Tuesday's decision, Racing Victoria's chief executive Giles Thompson claimed the action taken by RV's integrity services team was appropriate after the illegal cobalt levels had been discovered.
Victoria's highest court supported the VCAT ruling and sent the case back there for penalty on the charge of presentation, with Justice Garde releasing his decision on Tuesday.
"We accept VCAT's ruling that the trainers breached the rules set down to ensure a level playing field," Thompson said. "Trainers are ultimately responsible for the care of their horses and ensuring they're presented to race free of prohibited substances.
"Our priority has always been to protect the integrity of Victorian thoroughbred racing and the welfare of all participants, including our horses. We took this action because the horses involved returned cobalt readings that were excessively above the permitted threshold when they were presented to the racetrack in breach of the rules of racing."
According to AAP, since RV introduced cobalt testing in April 2014, close to 12,000 samples have been tested and 99.84 per cent have not exceeded the threshold.
Birchley not allowed to run horses in New South Wales
Brisbane trainer Liam Birchley will not be allowed to run any horses in New South Wales after stewards rejected his lawyer's submissions in response to a show cause notice. Birchley is one of eight people charged in the 'milkshaking' scandal that has rocked Victorian racing, with the alleged offences dating back to 2010.
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