ABOUT three hours before last year’'s Melbourne Cup, two fit, serious-looking types — acting, as usual, on a mix of intelligence and instinct — sat in a Holden Commodore about 300m from a stable just outside Geelong.

MATT STEWART of the HERALD SUN reports that they sat and watched, as they’d done outside other properties countless times, as three men began to act a little oddly.

The car was plain but not invisible. To change things up a bit, the Commodore might on another occasion be an old ute with a dog in the back; anything to avert attention.

The trainer and his assistant, their eyes darting about, disappeared into the stable as a “cockatoo’’, who was also the truck driver, locked the gate and stood watch.

For the men in the Commodore, the locking of the gate was the first sign something might be up. Gates with coded entries are another. Body language, of course, is the clincher.

The two heads of Racing Victoria’s compliance assurance team, ex-jockeys who go all over the state, at unexpected hours, to catch trainers who cheat, have learnt to read the signs.

They once used driveways, but received a lesson in stealth one day in country Victoria. “We came up the driveway and they scattered like seagulls,’’ Kane Ashby said.

They weren’t always so astute in the art of stealth. Ashby, 44, and Dion Villella, 41, were good-to-average jockeys who drifted into stewarding — yes, they realise the irony — when they became too big to continue riding.

In 2009, RVL’s specialist racing investigators were phased out and a new department, mixing investigative work with standard non-racetrack stewarding, was created.

Ashby, who never liked being cooped up in an office, signed up and recruited Villella a few months later.

After some serious crash-coursing, learning the art of sneaking about on the job, doing Victoria Police courses and using their established horse sense, Ashby and Villella — and colleagues Tim Robinson, Rhys Melville, Mark Stevens and Simon Quintner — became RVL’s ‘gotcha squad’.

They average 300 to 400 stable “visits’’ a year, with Villella assured “that Kane knows what my right hand is doing and me knowing what his left is up to’’.

Last spring they were in overdrive just as the sporting spotlight homed in on racing. Many of the headlines that carnival may not have shown the sport in a perfect light, but image management is for racing’s PR people, not its gotcha squad.

Both insist, however, that most raids amount to nothing and most trainers have nothing to hide — although it might not have appeared that way this time last year.

On Turnbull Stakes day, they raided a stable in Melbourne’s east, leaping over a fence because they were blocked at the gate by an electronic pin entry code (which must now be submitted to RVL stewards).

On that occasion, they plucked a used syringe from a bin and tested it for DNA (a first), later nailing a conviction. A group of trainers, starting on Turnbull day, then Caulfield Cup day and on a few times during Melbourne Cup week, were caught in uncompromising situations by Ashby and Villella, using the ultimate in modern sophistication: video cameras on their iPhones.

The trainers were later all found guilty.

For timing, as 100,000 crammed Flemington for the Cup an hour up the road, the raid on the outskirts of Geelong was hard to beat.

Raids, which try to coincide with the precise timing of an illegal treatment, can succeed or fail in a split-second. Caught in the act is ideal but almost impossible, such as catching a trainer using EPO.

They achieved that, by the way, three years ago; a two-state sting that had Richard Laming as the only trainer pinged for EPO, despite exhaustive testing and research.

Laming’s three-year disqualification ends soon.

Raids that yield nothing improper are over inside half an half; a check of the horse’s neck (for syringe marks), mouth and nostrils (tubing), a gander at the medical cabinet and treatment records — and goodbye.

The locked gate on Melbourne Cup day at Geelong, blokes on tiptoes, peering anxiously through barn windows, had Ashby and Villella on high alert.

They approached the gate and Ashby legged Villella over a 2m fence. This they had done many times before.

“Sometimes you land a bit dodgy," Ashby admits, adding he once encountered a different peril.
“A dog once took a chunk out of my arse.”

On this occasion, Cup Day, Villella landed perfectly and “hit the ground running’’, unsure, briefly, whether to bolt to the front or rear stable door. Sensing his mate needed urgent back-up, Ashby demanded the “cockatoo’’ give him a leg-up.

“He knew he’d be in a bit of trouble if he didn’t, so he legged me over, too," Ashby said.

The trainer was caught with a bucket and tube and suspended for a year for attempting an illegal race-day treatment.

He might have felt stiff. Others nabbed last spring copped fines of $10,000, but new rules mean such offenders will cop a mandatory six-month suspension.

“The penalties now must be a deterrent. They’re enough to have an impact on a career," Ashby said.

(Paul Beshara, trainer of Happy Trails, faces stewards next Friday on a charge of an illegal race-day treatment.)

At Geelong on Cup Day the gotcha squad was keen to raid the trainer’s car, but he refused them entry.

The stewards didn’t press the issue, suspecting rightly that the bucket of warm water and hose were evidence enough. The job has a certain autonomy and cloak and dagger appeal for the gotcha squad, yet there are unusual costs.

As jockeys, Ashby and Villella became great mates with fellow hoops, owners and trainers. Previous associations are now out of bounds.

“There is a line we just can’t cross,’’ Ashby said, adding they also faced the “Chaser’’ dilemma of being so well known now that offenders see them coming.

“But we’re trying to get more sophisticated at the same time. That said, being recognised is becoming a bit of a problem,’’ he said.

Both admit to an adrenalin rush when they know the “job" is on.

Times, and methods, have indeed changed. Over the decades there have been funny episodes.

Pre-Villella and Ashby, an investigator in a black ute followed a suspected rogue trainer through the state’s backroads.

He pounced when the horse float pulled up outside a cemetery, convinced horses were being illegally stomach tubed.

The investigator launched himself into the back of the float with his camera clicking away madly, got back in his ute convinced he had his man and headed back to the office. Sadly, he discovered the lens cap had not been removed.

On another occasion, stewards in commando gear sat in the long grass surrounding the farm stable of a disqualified trainer who they suspected was sneakily working his horses.

The trainer was indeed there and, blissfully unaware, reversed a tractor into the long grass, almost running over a khaki-clad steward.

The raids will continue this spring and the headlines will follow.

There may even be one today, who knows. Peptides, Villella said, might be the “biggest issue going forward’’ and EPO and new, sophisticated drugs might also be out there.

The gotcha squad allow themselves no mates in the industry, yet the industry is appreciative.

“We’ll get a pat on the back and an encouraging phone call from the 90-percenters, the ones who are doing nothing wrong,’’ Ashby said. “They’re just after an even playing field.’’