Jenny - Clean

TOP jockey Danny Nikolic has proven to be an amazing survivor in a tough industry but with controversy continuing to ride shotgun his career seems to have again reached the cross-roads.

Nikolic has been continually defended by sections of a sympathetic racing media despite the fact that in a raft of incidents from Hong Kong to Mauritius and now Melbourne there has been a common thread - claims that he was the innocent victim or scapegoat. He may well have been but to the ordinary punter it’s starting to sound all too familiar.

In the eyes of some the Racing Victoria Board took the easy but wise option of abandoning the stewards’ inquiry into the Nikolic charge of refusing to follow an instruction by hand-balling it to the Racing Appeals and Disciplinary Board (a hearing set down for Friday, March 5).

The RVL Board has the power to redirect a stewards' inquiry under a recent but rarely used rule that takes into account the seriousness of breaches or the high profile of those involved.

Aside from the charges already laid (another involves Nikolic allegedly using his mobile phone at Flemington on New Years’s Day), RVL stewards have begun an investigation into as many as 10 losing Nikolic rides over a four month period.

Insiders suggest that RVL has become increasingly frustrated by the ability of Nikolic to defend his actions through a sympathetic racing media.

He seems to be winning the public relations battle with statements like: “It’s the perception that I’ve stopped horses. I haven’t. It is totally unfair, it’s ruining my career. As I’ve said all along, I’ve done nothing wrong.”

Punters want to give Nikolic the benefit of the doubt but are asking: “Why then was he not prepared to hand over his mobile phone to stewards?” It’s a fair question.

Just as reasonable are questions being asked about overseas incidents in the past, threatening to return to haunt him, where the racing media also painted Nikolic as ‘the victim or scapegoat.’

Nikolic currently faces two charges, one regarding to use of his mobile phone at Flemington without the stewards' permission on New Year's Day when he contacted punter and commission agent Neville Clements. He was also charged with refusing an order to hand over his phone.

Friday's RAD sitting will deliberate on the charge of refusing to hand over his mobile phone only. Clements has also been charged with not following a steward's instruction to hand over his phone. RAD will hear that charge too. Stewards have deferred their hearing into Nikolic's use of his phone on New Year's Day.

Nikolic told the Herald Sun that he rang Clements purely to get his thoughts on the tempo of the Bagot Handicap, a race he subsequently won on Atlantic Air.

He claims that handing over his mobile phone represents ‘an invasion of privacy’. “I’m only too happy to provide stewards names of people whose numbers are listed on the records. But I believe I'm quite entitled not to hand over my phone. It's been supported by a number of legal people. To be charged for that is absurd.”

Some sections of the media in Victoria – keen to see Chief Steward Terry Bailey fall on his sword – have provided in my opinion a biased and one-sided coverage of the Nikolic situation. They have accused the stewards of being unfair and having no concern for Nikolic’s reputation.

The RAD Board is an independent body chaired by Judge Russell Lewis. The decision for it to hear the charge of Nikolic failing to hand over his mobile phone kills off the media rumblings of a stewards' vendetta against the jockey.

But to fully silence the media critics stewards need to detail the sensitive reasons why they want more than just Nikolic's phone records but his phone itself. A Racing Victoria media release said it was to access Nikolic's contact list.

Australian Jockeys’ Association chairman and leading lawyer, Ross Inglis, insists that privacy laws over-rule RVL’s authority to demand a jockey hand over his mobile phone.

Inglis claims Nikolic was within his rights not to give stewards his mobile. Under advice from his lawyer, Paul O'Sullivan, Nikolic said he was willing to provide stewards with the identity of any number that appeared on the records, but not to give them the phone.

“Privacy should prevail,” Inglis said. “Mobile phone numbers and text messages are personal and I don't believe stewards have the right to ask someone to hand their phone over. “Danny is entitled to protect his privacy in relation to who is in his address book.”

While the Inglis argument sounds convincing under the Australian Rules of Racing there appears to be a requirement for Nikolic and other jockeys to hand over their mobiles if requested.

Section AR.8 (b) of the Rules states: Stewards shall be appointed according to the Rules of the respective Principal Racing Authorities, with the following powers:

(b) To require and obtain production and take possession of any mobile phones, computers, electronic devices, books, documents and records, including any telephone or financial records relating to any meeting or inquiry.

Any jockey licensed by Racing Victoria signs and agrees to certain obligations. Section 4 (Terms and Conditions of License) reads:

  1. The rider acknowledges and agrees to be subject to and be bound by:

a) The Rules of Racing of the Principal Racing Authority as amended or varied by the Principal Racing Authority from time to time; and

b) Such rules and directions as may from time to time be formed, made or given the directors for the Principal Racing Authority (Directors), the stewards or the Principal Racing Authority (Stewards) or the officials of any racing club registered by the Principal Racing Authority to conduct thoroughbred racing under the Rules (Club).

I’m no lawyer but those Rules and Requirements seem pretty straight forward to me. Then again that’s a matter to be argued before much smarter legal brains and individuals who make up the RAD Board (which meets this Friday, March 5, to hear argument on the issue).

In an opinion piece in the Herald Sun, leading racing writer Adrian Dunn highlights the fact that perception can be everything in racing.

‘Careers of jockeys and trainers soar and plummet on a raft of factors,’ he says. ‘No more glaring example than Danny Nikolic, a prolific Group 1-winning jockey during a turbulent career.

‘Nikolic came off a weekend where he won the Oakleigh Plate, his 31st Group 1, failed to win the other Group 1, the Blue Diamond, by a long neck and rode two double-digit odds horses to second.

‘It again showcased his ability, but instead of making him the jockey of choice, he attracted four rides at the two weekend city meetings.

‘Nikolic's efforts to gain rides, even from those considered stable stalwarts, have been swamped by a tsunami of innuendo emanating from a Racing Victoria stewards probe.

‘Wrongly, Nikolic has been hung out to dry. His name and reputation have been torpedoed since a report inferring he'd been ‘caught’ in some sort of betting probe.

‘The perception is that Nikolic has done something outside the boundaries that bind all jockeys. Chinese whispers have amplified it.

‘Nikolic has steadfastly maintained his innocence, but, unjustly, some sections have condemned him on nothing more than racing's rumour mill.’

Dunn points out that Nikolic has been charged with two offences – one relating to his refusal to hand over his mobile phone to stewards and the other for phoning a professional punter from the public reserve at Flemington on New Year’s Day without the permission of stewards.

‘It falls into the lower misdemeanour range,” Dunn said. ‘No word, however, on the far more serious implication of the 10 rides he was quizzed about and that saw seven trainers attend RVL headquarters. None of the trainers faulted the rides, but the stewards' silence is deafening.

‘If stewards believe Nikolic has a case to answer in relation to those rides, he should be charged and then the Racing Appeals and Disciplinary Board should adjudicate. If not, his name must be cleared over those rides and any link, however tenuous, to any alleged betting probe.

‘As one trainer succinctly noted at the races the other day, Danny Nikolic is a dead man walking.

‘Perception, fuelled by innuendo, will do that.’

POINT taken but history shows that controversy has ridden shot-gun with Nikolic throughout his career and in every one of those incidents there is a common thread – claims that he was an innocent victim or scapegoat.

Remember September 2007 when Nikolic departed Hong Kong racing under controversial circumstances after being sacked when he got beaten on what has turned out to be the best sprinter in world racing, Sacred Kingdom.

The Licensing Committee of the HKJC agreed to a request from Nikolic for an immediate release from his contract to ride as a Club Jockey and he returned to Australia after only one week of the new season.

At the time, Murray Bell, an Australian racing writer working for the South China Morning Post, went into bat for Nikolic in his ‘On The Rails’ column suggesting a ‘poisonous culture had hung the jockey out to dry.’

Bell wrote: ‘The demise of Danny Nikolic as a club jockey is a tale of the intrigue that lies behind Hong Kong racing - a startling reminder of all that is good and bad in this exciting, crazy city and how western influences may change many things, but domestic culture escapes largely unscathed.

‘Nikolic found his position untenable through circumstances out of his control. He gave a big-name horse a perfect ride - and we mean perfect in every sense of the term - but when it finished fourth the silent assassins moved in.

He ‘held’ it, the gossips said. But true to the culture, no one would personally put that proposition to Nikolic himself.

‘After Sacred Kingdom was beaten by rising star Medic Power in course record time in June, Nikolic knew he was in grave risk of being kicked off the horse, but had no idea how bad it would get.

‘Trainer Ricky Yiu Poon-fie would not talk to him. Yiu has been here a lot longer than Nikolic and has seen the worst of it himself. We are talking about the original trainer of Fairy King Prawn, Electronic Unicorn and Bullish Luck.

‘Yiu had won the Hong Kong Sprint with Fairy King Prawn so he could scarcely be accused of under-achieving. But he lost the best horse in town to Ivan Allan.

‘So, when the natives became restless after the defeat of the previously unbeaten Sacred Kingdom, you could scarcely blame Yiu if he fell strangely silent amid the gossip and innuendo surrounding Nikolic.

‘After all, Yiu understands the culture as only a three-time victim can, and expected the owners would want someone to punish for the defeat. Given a choice of himself or the jockey, he probably felt he had ‘no choice’ than to cut the jockey adrift.

‘When Nikolic returned from holidays and began riding work, the deed had been done. But still - again, true to the culture - Nikolic had not been told. Outstanding French jockey Gerald Mosse had accepted an offer from the owners to take over the riding of Sacred Kingdom and gave Nikolic a friendly call to update him. Different culture entirely.

‘This column can say without fear of contradiction that rumors of Nikolic having allegedly pulled up Sacred Kingdom reached the ears of the stipendiary stewards, who immediately pulled out the videos to see what, if anything, they had missed.

‘There it was, a two-horse race on paper, with main danger Medic Power running third on the fence and Nikolic was tactically perfect in positioning Sacred Kingdom up outside him. That Medic Power won easily should demonstrate this was the ideal place to be, yet this column hears that convoluted thinking has it the other way, as ‘evidence’ that the horse was ‘held’.

‘Nikolic said he was concerned going into the race that Sacred Kingdom had peaked for the season and had expressed those views to Yiu beforehand. (SCMP) colleague Alan Aitken and I also sensed it and tipped Medic Power to win the race with his five-pound weight advantage.

‘The stewards know they have no place responding to rumors, which owners would only deny anyway, but they all feel badly for Nikolic.

‘When he returned to riding from the summer break, most of the local trainers for whom he rode last year told him they didn't want to put him on, even in trackwork. The poison had taken root.

‘The gossip had been repeated until it became accepted fact, while the real facts were there plainly for all to see, if only they'd look. And all that work Nikolic put into the education and steady development of a raw talent called Sacred Kingdom, work that gave the owners such a bountiful harvest, was dismissed without even a phone call.

‘When locals are asked to explain this thinking, the answer is ‘saving face’. But for those of us brought up in a different culture, we may never understand how an unjustified character assassination gives or saves face for anyone.’

But another controversy of Hong Kong proportions was to return to haunt the career of Nikolic when he was forced to cut short yet another overseas riding stint – this time in June of last year in Mauritius.

He returned to Australia to ponder his future after an explosive blow-up with officials in Mauritius and claims of ‘dirty riding tactics.’

The Guy Fok stable in Mauritius dramatically terminated Nikolic’s riding contract after receiving a report of a confrontation with MTC stewards.

Stable trainer, Budheswar Gujadhur, said it related to an incident in the stewards’ room when he claimed Nikolic had been disrespectful towards the stewards. “We have decided to terminate his contract. There are things we cannot accept.”

Nikolic denied any wrong-doing and explained at the time that he had been called to an inquiry following a complaint by French jockey, Gaeton Faucon, after a race the previous weekend. It was the second time in a fortnight that the two jockeys had been involved in an inquiry after Faucon complained about Nikolic’s riding tactics.

Chief Steward Ian Patterson called both in for ‘an informal chat’ hoping to ‘calm the growing unrest.’ “But during that meeting there was an incident between jockey Nikolic and one of the stewards (a doctor who doubles as a part-time steward).

“It became a little bit personal,” Patterson said. “It went for about a minute and a half. They had their points of view and they agreed to disagree and it became a little bit heated at one stage.”

Nikolic had highlighted the fact that one particular stable had registered several complaints against him and declared: “You know what I’m like in the stewards’ room if I think people don’t know what they’re talking about.

“I told the doctor he didn’t know what he was looking at and he took offence to it. He walked out of an earlier inquiry and just dismissed me and I said to him in this latest inquiry: ‘Are you going to walk out again?’

“He got really offended. I didn’t back down. It got a bit heated and because I wouldn’t apologize the stable said they had no option but to terminate my contract.

What do you do? I am not going to be dictated to by anyone who doesn’t know what they are looking at,” Nikolic told the Australian racing media at the time.

THE one thing that Nikolic is very good at is getting his career back on track and that takes more than a little help from his mates in the racing media – it takes an enormous amount of riding talent, which has been displayed over the years with many Group One wins.

Unfortunately those achievements have been overshadowed by the controversy that continues to dog him. Betfair’s customer integrity network is at the centre of the latest inquiry. That security process analyzes betting patterns and raises ref flags if punters start laying horses for large amounts rather than backing them.

Betfair alerted stewards to suspicious betting activity on Finishing Card when beaten as a $1.60 favourite at Mornington on January 8, sparking the investigation into Nikolic.

In relation to this inquiry, Nikolic said: “I don't bet. I don't have a Betfair account. I don't have a corporate (betting) account. I haven't done anything. I've got nothing to hide. I'm just sick of all this innuendo.”

Nikolic has never been short of friends in racing or the racing media. In the aftermath of the Hong Kong misadventure he was quick to re-establish his career in Australia.

It came as no surprise that when Chris Munce hit a major hurdle in Hong Kong, Nikolic was one of those good mates who was there to provide moral support. Now there is talk that Nikolic is looking to re-establish his career in Queensland, where Munce recently relocated to from Sydney.

In the wake of the Nikolic inquiries rank and file punters are starting to question why stewards in other states are not as active as their colleagues in Victoria since Terry Bailey took over as chairman.

Despite sections of the racing media in Victoria being out to discredit him, Bailey is proving what Queenslanders have known for a long time – he’s the best steward in the land. There was a time when Ray Murrihy would have worn this tag.

Some question if Murrihy is as strong as he once was. A high profile professional punter was not very complimentary of the integrity of Sydney racing when he addressed a sportsman’s luncheon in Queensland recently.

Queensland’s new Chief Steward Wade Birch has won quite a few Brownie Points with punters since his appointment but rumors continue to circulate that road blocks are being placed in his path. One would hope the stories about a prominent bookmaker having a long list of jockeys on his speed dial is little more than racetrack gossip.

The mobile phone furore in Victoria has revived interesting memories of that time in Queensland Racing when the worst integrity section in living memory ran the roost. There was no privacy back then for anyone with a mobile phone provided by QR as part of their work contract.

Records were checked to see who was talking to who and when Alan Reardon, the former chairman of stewards was wrongly shown the door, the Integrity Department confiscated his mobile phone and checked who he had been speaking to in the lead-up to his departure.

Some of those involved were asked to explain what they were talking to him about. It was a forgetful time for Queensland Racing. Unlike Racing Victoria where Nikolic will get a fair go, in Queensland back then the  interpretation of an independent hearing was appointing the right people to get the desired result.

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