Cobalt sentencing: Trainers Danny O’Brien and Mark Kavanagh face day of reckoning

It took the Racing Appeals and Disciplinary Board chairman, Russell Lewis, inside five minutes to deliver potentially career-ending penalties to Danny O’Brien, Mark Kavanagh and Dr Tom Brennan.

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All three had been found guilty in December 2015 of administering cobalt to affect the performance of a horse in a race – the most serious charge in racing – doping. O’Brien was today disqualified for four years, Kavanagh for three years and vet Brennan for five.

However, the point is not lost on the Australian racing community. With suspensions handed to Lee and Shannon Hope last year, four leading trainers and one much thought-of veterinary surgeon are now all but remote chances of regaining their once high profiles.

All parties will now head to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, which will enable them to continue to train under a stay and ensure that the long-running cobalt saga still has a way to play out.

However, the RAD board – racing’s independent judiciary comprised of luminary legal figures and headed by Lewis, a former county court judge – was clinical in delivering the guilty findings, results and penalties.

The board found trainers O’Brien and Kavanagh and vet Brennan guilty of doping to affect race performance – cheating – and disqualified all three, effectively saying there is no room for this behaviour in horse racing.

Whilst all three deserve an appeal process, the significance of the RAD board and its decision should not be overlooked. The trainers denied that they knew the substance was cobalt or what effect cobalt had on the horses.

The RAD board was set up under previous Labour racing minister, Rob Hulls. It is completely independent of Racing Victoria and comprises senior legal authorities, all of whom have an interest and a thorough understanding of racing.

The RAD board was created with a proper legal framework in much the same way as a court, where the stewards present their case through their own legal representative. In the cobalt cases, Racing Victoria engaged leading Queen’s Counsel, Jeff Gleeson, and the trainers can also engage legal counsel to represent them.

Judge Lewis, who has presided over the cobalt cases of Lee and Shannon Hope, is now retiring, although he has been chairman of the RAD board for the past 13 years.

In this time Judge Lewis has heard countless cases involving drugs, positive swabs and other racing matters.

The RAD board has an intimate understanding of the nuances of horse racing entwined with legal knowledge and is therefore uniquely equipped to deal with serious matters.

Cobalt cases have been headline news since the positives were announced last January. It has been a shocking news story for racing and it cuts to the very heart of racing, the need to be a clean sport and to present a level playing field for the punter and racegoer.

It is shocking because of the profiles of the trainers who have been caught – O’Brien, Kavanagh and also leading trainer Peter Moody.

But this is not endemic cheating, there are more that 900 registered horse trainers in Victoria and to date only five of them and a veterinarian have been caught over cobalt positives.

After today’s RAD board penalties, five of these six have now been banned by the sport’s independent judiciary, leaving only Moody, whose case is scheduled to reconvene in February, while the others await their appeals.

The results to date are very clear for Racing Victoria’s much-maligned integrity department headed by chief steward Terry Bailey and chief veterinarian Dr Brian Stewart.

The RAD board accepted and believed the science of cobalt which was the pivotal key to Racing Victoria’s case against all trainers.

The science of cobalt means that it is impossible to exceed racing’s 200 mcg/L urinary cobalt threshold using oral cobalt supplements or normal proprietary cobalt vitamin injections if one is abiding by the rules of racing, this only leaves the most unpalatable alternative – that the nine horses involved in the cobalt positives were either treated illegally on race day or were given massive doses of non proprietary (bootleg) cobalt leading up to race day.

The only possible reason for such treatment would be to influence or affect race performance.

While Bailey and Stewart have remained the target of the media, both have stayed silent, adopting the policy of pointing to the scoreboard that is very much vindicating their campaign of a new culture for racing in the state.