Day At The Track

Guns and gangsters: racing loses its innocence

05:00 AM 31 Oct 2015 NZDT
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Tony Mokbel Danny Nikolic Jason Matthew Moran Mick Gatto Horty Mokbel
Tony Mokbel
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Danny Nikolic
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Jason Matthew Moran
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Mick Gatto
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Horty Mokbel
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As racing steward Terry Bailey stumbled on to his nature strip, clutching a tribal carving for ­defence seconds after gunfire peppered his suburban family home, he confronted two new realities.

His world as sheriff of the track had changed forever: criminal elements had taken the fight straight to his doorstep only days before the Melbourne Cup.

His second thought provided little comfort: the shooter could be anyone among a bulging Rolodex of enemies the 48-year-old chief steward had accumulated during a meteoric rise from Rockhampton racetrack to the hallowed turf of Flemington.

Among the beaming celebrities and corporate suits in the luxurious marquees of the Birdcage from today, the party will barely miss a beat: DJs, champagne, fashion and some stunning feats of equine athleticism.

But the racing industry — and its top cop — have been blasted into a new and terrifying era.

Bailey speaks with a slow, nasal drawl that betrays his humble ­origins as the son of a cop who grew up in the backblocks of Queensland and NSW. But, up close, his eyes twinkle with a raw intelligence that smart folk quickly detect.

John “The Sheriff” Schreck, perhaps the most famous steward in Australian turf history, saw that glimmer in Bailey’s eye and plucked him from obscurity at Rockhampton and put him on the path to the big league.

“I first met him when he was still at school and he was working as a gofer on the track at Rockhampton — all he ever wanted to do was be involved in the administration of racing,’’ he tells The Weekend Australian in his first ­extended interview since the shooting. “His work ethic was quite outstanding and his common sense.”

Today the stakes are astronomically higher, the villains smarter and far more ruthless, but Bailey hasn’t lost his laconic bush sense of humour. “I don’t have any other interests in life so, I presume, this is the common denominator,’’ he said the morning after an unknown enemy had pumped six rounds from a semi-automatic weapon into the front door of his suburban Melbourne house.

“If they want to find you, they’ll find you.”

Now, as the $16 billion racing industry begins its biggest week of the year, with the eyes of the racing world fixed on Melbourne, he and his family (a wife and two teen daughters he “idolises”) are living out of a safe house with a security detail attached to them 24/7.

The attack was written up this week as the moment that racing lost its innocence, a description that didn’t pass the laugh test even for those who love the so-called sport of kings.

“Don’t they remember (gangster) Tony Mokbel betting up a storm? Or (a certain jockey) taking bungs? Or the Smoking Aces (race-fixing) case? Or the cobalt scandal,’’ one world-weary racing fan mused.

But Bailey’s mentor Schreck, who was the Australian Jockey Club’s chief steward for 15 years and did stints in senior roles in Hong Kong, Singapore and Macau, believes the attack on his friend and protege marks a significant new low and racing needs to recognise it.

“It’s a bloody awful thing and it’s done untold damage to horse racing in this country,’’ he said.

“He (Bailey) would be terribly disturbed about it and worried for his family. In the future, when Terry Bailey moves back home I would expect he will have CCTV throughout the house. I never thought I would see those days. It’s just gangster stuff, isn’t it?”

Gunshots flying into the home of the industry’s top cop is undoubtedly a new low, but villains have always lurked in the shadows of horse racing. There was the Fine Cotton scandal in the 1980s, ­George Freeman roaming Sydney tracks before that — the links even go back to the days of John Wren, depicted in Frank Hardy’s Power Without Glory.

In more recent times, there has also been the unsolved execution-style murder of horse trainer Les Samba, gunned down on a Melbourne street in 2011.

The jailed drug lord Tony Mokbel was a horse owner and reputedly still punts from his maximum-security prison, having led the so-called Tracksuit Gang in the 1980s and 90s, trading words and tips at racecourses across Australia. His brother Horty Mokbel was banned from tracks in 2004.

Mick Gatto, who shot dead gangland killer Andrew “Benji’’ Veniamin more than a decade ago but beat a murder charge, is also now banned from racetracks and Crown casino.

Carl Williams, the murderer who was killed in jail, was at the epicentre of Melbourne’s gangland war. He loved a punt as well.

As did ­Alphonse Gangitano, once the public but violent face of the Carlton Crew. His interest in horse racing and protection rackets ended with his death in 1998 at the hands of — police believe — Jason Moran.

The Morans had close links with racing and Jason Moran was accused of triggering the underworld war that killed dozens. He, too, is no longer with us.

Beyond the glittering success of the Flemington carnival, racing has for years been locked in a struggle to expel criminal elements, with Bailey at the vanguard. Pretty much ever since he was lured from the Gold Coast to clean up harness racing in Vic­toria, he has had a tiger by the tail. Bailey soon unearthed a race-fixing scandal involving the use of a drug known as Blue Magic. In a move that foreshadowed his ­aggressive style, he liaised closely with police and used covert surveillance to build a case that culminated in raids in Australia and New Zealand that would smash a crime syndicate.

He parlayed that success into a shift into thoroughbreds — the main game — where he became one of the youngest chief stewards in Victorian history, replacing stalwart Des Gleeson.

As Bailey drove a more aggressive enforcement culture, that Rolodex of enemies continued to grow. His detractors accuse him of the law enforcement equivalent of “managing up” — kicking the shit out of industry participants to garner publicity and to further his own career.

He tangled with talented but troubled jockey Danny Nikolic, pursuing the hoop unsuccessfully over the so-called Betfair scandal and then the Smoking Aces race-fixing probe.

Nikolic was cleared on both, but it was the start of a bloody war of attrition between the steward and jockey that would ultimately see Bailey get his man following a clash outside the steward’s tower in which Nikolic is alleged to have said: “We’ve all got families, c---, and we know where yours live ...”

Nikolic, who was banned for two years, denied making the comment and was not commenting on this week’s incident.

Bailey has been unrelenting in driving higher integrity standards, pushing for covert surveillance of stables and demanding trainers give his officials keys to their stable doors and even seeking to implant a spy in one stable.

He found himself at the centre of the most high-profile drug case in the sport’s recent history when big-name trainers Peter Moody, Mark Kavanagh and Danny O’Brien were charged over positive swabs for cobalt returned by horses in their care.

The cases continue to grind on, further damaging the sport’s image as ever darker secrets emerge, such as the reported links between a vet involved in supplying cobalt and organised criminals with ties to the harness racing world.

It is true that racing has taken big strides towards a far more ruthless enforcement culture, introducing tough drug standards and investing in testing laboratories that keep officials close on the heels of biochemists.

Victoria’s Racing Integrity Commissioner, Sal Perna, says on top of sophisticated race-day betting analysis teams, racing now has its own compliance and audit squads.

“These are guys who are jumping the fences of trainers’ properties and checking the stables and drug testing,’’ he said.

“Integrity has become much (more) important. Racing’s success is based on public confidence. If the public don’t have confidence in integrity, they won’t bet, then there’s less money coming in.”

Racing Australia chief executive Peter McGauran says the brazen gun attack is a wake-up call for the federal government, which must let the industry’s integrity bodies have better access to phone call and intercept data to protect the sport from organised crime.

“If there are criminal elements capable of that here you can only imagine what those associated with illegal Asian bookmaking are capable of,” he said.

Racing commentator Richard Freedman, the brother of Melbourne Cup winning trainers Lee and Anthony Freedman, says the attack on Bailey comes at a bad time for the sport but he doesn’t believe it will have a lasting negative effect.

“I don’t want to sound blase about what happened to Terry because it’s appalling, but you have to take the long view — in the long term, the sport will be better.”

Freedman agrees that racing is suffering from “the Tour de France syndrome”. “If you attempt to tackle cheats in your sport, you will expose yourself to claims your sport is full of cheats, because you will find them,’’ he said.

 
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