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Clashes and clashing heads: How Aquanita has riven Victorian racing

The documents also show that Neerim Lodge’s hardball tactics in its dealings with rising young trainer Henry Dwyer prompted several other Caulfield trainers to complain to the executive of the MRC, with the club forced to act as mediator.

As part of this dispute, Mr Dwyer’s advisers accused the club of a conflict of interest because until mid-2018, Neerim Lodge’s part-owner and director, Mike Symons, was the chairman of the MRC and remains a director of its lucrative gaming and hospitality arms.

Mike Symons during Melbourne Racing at Sandown Hillside, 2017 Melbourne, Australia.

Mike Symons during Melbourne Racing at Sandown Hillside, 2017 Melbourne, Australia. Credit:Getty Images

The MRC’s legal manager subsequently threatened Mr Dwyer’s adviser with a defamation claim, though no action was ultimately taken.

MRC chief executive Josh Blanksby this week said Mr Symons’ interests were always declared and his role overseeing the club’s hospitality businesses was separate from racing matters, so there was no conflict.

Mr Symons said he never was involved in tenancy discussions between Neerim Lodge and the MRC. He acknowledged there was angst with some, but not all, former trainers over commercial disputes. Mr Dwyer was still training a few horses he part-owned, he said.

While Racing Victoria has come down hard on those responsible for Aquanita’s illegal raceday treatments, its stewards have found no evidence that Mr Symons and his fellow directors – Peter Howell, David Trussler and Campbell McKellar – were aware of the practices. The Sunday Age and Sun-Herald do not suggest otherwise.

But some in Victorian racing circles believe the company’s name will be forever tarnished by the doping scandal.

“To think that everything would just go away by changing the name of the business was either misguided or extremely arrogant,” one prominent Victorian racing official said this week.

The boxes

When Aquanita’s leading trainer Robert Smerdon removed himself from training in January 2018 ahead of inevitable serious sanctions, it created an expensive hole in the stable’s training hub at Caulfield.

Aquanita had to find someone to rent 68 vacant stables. Enter young trainer Henry Dwyer. The Group 1 winner already had 40 stables at Caulfield but agreed to relinquish these and take over Mr Smerdon’s as what he says was a favour to the Aquanita directors, who were on good terms with other members of Mr Dwyer’s family.

Mr Dwyer declined to be interviewed but emails refer to a handshake deal being made under which he would be no financially worse off for helping out. Mr Dwyer also took on Mr Smerdon’s staff, relieving Neerim Lodge of the pressure of possible redundancies.

Henry Dwyer (left) with jockey Michelle Payne.

Henry Dwyer (left) with jockey Michelle Payne.Credit:Damian White

Mr Dwyer was still paying rent on his old stables as insurance while the formal details of his agreement with Neerim Lodge were worked out. Documents show Neerim Lodge initially wanted $22 per day for each box.

This was a big increase from the $7 per box he had been paying, but the Neerim Lodge set-up included extras such as electricity, office rent and gardeners. Eventually, in May 2018, a price of $15.63 per box per day was agreed in writing under a rolling, 90-day rental agreement. With that done, Mr Dwyer relinquished his old stables to the MRC.

Six weeks later Mr Dwyer was shocked when one Neerim Lodge director, Mr Trussler, sent an email, copying in Mr Howell and Mr Symons, to advise that his rent would be increased to $22 – the figure Neerim Lodge had initially proposed. The contract allowed the rental increase but emails show Mr Dwyer believed it was not in the spirit of the original agreement that he be no worse off.

“Happy to discuss with you further … but needless to say this is a commercial imperative from our perspective,” Mr Trussler wrote.

Mr Dwyer had nowhere to go and faced an unsustainable $100,000 annual rental increase. So he decided to only pay the amount the parties had initially agreed to and reduced his stables at Caulfield by 22. This led to a year-long standoff which eventually forced the MRC to act as mediator.

Evictions and conflicts

As word got around Caulfield about Mr Dwyer’s experience with Neerim Lodge, a number of the other trainers based there were dismayed. Chief among them was racing industry veteran John Sadler, previously a key player in the Aquanita operation. Throughout the negative publicity and stress of the stewards’ investigation, Mr Sadler had stood by Neerim Lodge’s directors.

But the decision to vastly increase Mr Dwyer’s rent just after he had given back his old stables was a bridge too far for Mr Sadler. He and others raised Neerim Lodge’s treatment of trainers with MRC executives.

Shamal Wind at the Caulfield stables in 2015.

Shamal Wind at the Caulfield stables in 2015.Credit:Vince Caligiuri

With frustrations building, MRC chief Mr Blanksby tried to soothe tempers by convening a mediation between Mr Dwyer, Neerim Lodge and their respective advisers on July 24 last year.

“Thanks for your time today. I thought it was a worthwhile discussion and we made progress on resolving the matter. It is clear that all parties, including the MRC, want this matter cleared up as soon as possible so we can all move forward,” Mr Blanksby wrote in an email to the parties.

A month later there was still no resolution, so the MRC advised Mr Dwyer that he would have to return his boxes to Neerim Lodge – which had just one trainer left – and move elsewhere on the course or be evicted by the end of August 2019.

To some, it looked as though the MRC had taken the side of Neerim Lodge in a dispute it had previously said it was unwilling to get involved in. To others, the MRC was just trying to broker a palatable outcome.

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On August 24 last year, an exasperated Mr Dwyer drafted an open letter to the MRC committee to explain he was aggrieved by what had taken place over the past year and “disappointed by the lack of support I’ve received from the MRC”.

His letter was signed by up to 20 of his fellow Caulfield trainers. Mr Dwyer finished off by saying he hoped the show of support “provides further weight to my cause and illustrates the miscarriage of justice that has transpired”.

In the end, Mr Dwyer never sent the letter. The horse had bolted with respect to the stables and he still needed to run his training business at Caulfield.

Mr Sadler, a former Aquanita director and trainer, was among those who signed the letter. He declined to be interviewed for this story but has also fallen out badly with Neerim Lodge.
His lawyer Phil Dwyer (who is not related to Henry Dwyer) confirmed that Neerim Management Services had recently launched legal proceedings against Mr Sadler over an alleged $50,000 loan.

“[Mr Sadler] disputes that claim and we have not seen any evidence to support it. A recent mediation was unsuccessful and the matter will now proceed to a hearing next year some time. Our advice is that the claim is without substance,” Phil Dwyer said.

Dealmaking and a headbutt

In May 2018, promising young trainer Nick Ryan, who was in business with Neerim Lodge, wanted to renegotiate. The co-director in his company, Nick Ryan Racing Pty Ltd, was Mr Symons and although Mr Ryan wanted to keep working with Neerim Lodge, he and his advisers thought it wise to put some corporate distance between him and a business tainted by a scandal he had nothing to do with.

Mr Ryan, who declined to be interviewed, enlisted the help of Albert Park accountant Hamish Giles. Documents show Mr Giles proposed a new corporate structure which included the removal of Mr Symons as a director.

In response, Mr Symons replied by email that Neerim Lodge would continue under its existing agreement with Mr Ryan and that, if that agreement was being viewed as void, then Mr Ryan would have seven days to remove his horses and staff from Neerim Lodge’s stables at Caulfield.

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Mr Howell was even more combative, declaring to Mr Giles: “We will not be dealing with a 3rd party like you. The current arrangement we have in place with Nick Ryan is not negotiable.”

Tension arising from the probe into Aquanita led to Mr Howell being on the receiving end of a headbutt last year from the then-disqualified former trainer Stuart Webb after peace talks went sour. Mr Webb was fined $2000 after pleading guilty to recklessly causing injury.

Mr Ryan eventually extracted himself from Neerim Lodge after months of negotiation and threatened legal action. He continues to train at Caulfield.

Money back

On the Bellarine Peninsula, Mr Symons and Mr Howell are also fighting a battle over their quarter shares of Stonehedge Farm near Drysdale, where Neerim Lodge houses some horses.

The two Neerim Lodge directors own the farm and are directors of the company Stonehedge Farm Pty Ltd alongside banned former Aquanita trainers Mr Smerdon and Tony Vasil. The ongoing business relationship continues to raise eyebrows in Victoria’s racing industry.

Stonehedge Farm on the Bellarine Peninsula.

Stonehedge Farm on the Bellarine Peninsula.Credit:Jason South

Mr Vasil and Mr Smerdon have claimed to supporters that they are struggling to get access to any financial information about the operation of a farm they each own a quarter of. When their advisers pressed Mr Symons for updated figures, he explained he and Mr Howell were simply being cautious with the information in order to comply with Racing Victoria’s rules on banned persons not being able to profit from the industry.

Racing Victoria has left open the prospect of prize money being returned by the owners of the implicated Aquanita runners.

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As owner of former champion jumps horse Black and Bent, Mr Symons, now a form analyst for Racing Victoria’s racing.com, is among those who might be asked to return prize money.

Asked by The Sunday Age and Sun Herald if the owners and directors of Aquanita would be pursued for their cut of prize money earned by horses trained under its banner, a Racing Victoria spokesman said it was still under consideration.

“No decision has yet been made with respect to recovery of prize money, and will only occur following the conclusion of the show cause process and the final determination by the Stewards.”

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