Much has changed since the first horses arrived in Australia, aboard a female convict ship, in January 1788. Today, Australians are among the most enthusiastic gamblers on horse racing in the world, spending £9.5bn in 2011.
But a joint TV and newspaper investigation claims criminal gangs are fixing races and using the ‘sport of kings’ to launder drug money. Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Four Corners programme teamed up with newspaper The Age to reveal a dark and even murderous side to the country’s gambling obsession.
‘Everyone loves a punt, including cashed-up criminals,’ said Four Corners presenter Kerry O’Brien.
And while allegations of criminality in the industry are not new, authorities have been slow to act in safeguarding an industry worth billions.
Inside Mail focuses on the racing industry in the state of Victoria. Best known in the UK as the home of Neighbours, Victoria and its capital Melbourne are notorious for gang warfare and crime.
Following the February 2011 murder of ‘colourful’ racing figure Les Samba in a well-heeled Melbourne suburb, police investigations started to pick away at horse racing’s criminal links. They found that despite a damning report and state government promises of tough action to stamp out corruption, the Sport of Kings still wears its carapace of slime.
Australian gangland figure Tony Mokbel, currently serving 30 years in prison for drug-related offences, is at the heart of the investigation. It is alleged that Mokbel paid tens of thousands of dollars to leading jockeys in exchange for tips.
‘If he’s got a pocketful of drug money,’ says reporter Nick McKenzie, ‘he’s got a better chance of getting an answer he wants to hear.’
Although jockeys are prohibited from passing on information, a handful of them are alleged to be manipulating races.
Beyond making a quick buck from race fixing, the investigation also alleges that some of Australia’s most notorious criminals are using racing to clean drug money. Four Corners claims Mokbel and his ‘Tracksuit Gang’ of goons cleaned up to £55m to funnel through luxury cars, homes and fillies by using others to place bets on his behalf, and by breaking down bets to avoid detection by Australia’s anti-money laundering agency.
Racing stewards, suspecting something was amiss, made repeated calls for help from Victoria’s police. Yet the authorities declined to investigate.
Despite a 2008 report confirming that ‘criminal activity in the racing sport is rampant’, not one of the bookmakers, trainers or jockeys alleged by the report to have ‘had improper associations with known criminals’ has faced serious repercussions over their dealings with Mokbel.
Jockeys, bookmakers and trainers are tightlipped and none would be interviewed for the documentary.
It was only when Victoria became mired in a dangerous tit-for-tat gangland killing spree that Mokbel and his links to thoroughbred racing corruption began to interest the police. But the response was slow and, Four Corners alleges, Australian authorities are yet to prove they can combat corruption in sport.
And with online betting booming, the investigation predicts that that criminals seeking to make money from the racing industry are far from flogging a dead horse.
Watch Four Corners’ ‘Inside Mail’ investigation here.
Written by Will Fitzgibbon for The Bureau of Investigative Journalism