Oliver rides away lightly after a hard fall from grace

A PHONE call made at the wrong time and place has tarnished Damien Oliver's career and seriously damaged the credibility of those responsible for running horse racing in Victoria.

Oliver's ill-fated call was made via his mobile phone in the jockeys' area at Moonee Valley on October 1, 2010. Its purpose was to place a $10,000 bet through former AFL player-turned-form analyst Mark Hunter, on a rival horse in the race he was about to ride in.

As things turned out, that rival horse, the favourite Miss Octopussy, won and paid $2.30. Oliver's mount, Europa Point, was the second favourite but ran sixth. There is no suggestion Oliver did not ride the horse to the best of his ability.

Racing Victoria's hearing on Tuesday was the first time Hunter, a well-connected racing figure, has been named in the betting scandal. In an example of the cosiness of the thoroughbred scene in Victoria, Tuesday's hearing also disclosed that Oliver received his winnings in cash from Caulfield-based trainer Robert Smerdon.

Oliver has admitted to breaking two of racing's iron-clad rules - that jockeys cannot bet and cannot use a phone in the jockeys' room.

His punishment - an eight-month disqualification and a further two months' loss of licence, with a one-month ban for the mobile phone violation to be served concurrently - will not be sufficient to sideline him from next year's spring carnival.

On Tuesday, he was contrite and emotional, telling stewards the bet was a one-off, spur-of-the-moment act made at ''probably the worst period of my life'', when he was battling alcohol problems and struggling to cope with his marriage breakdown.

''The separation, together with dealing with my own personal issues, brought me to a great sense of loss, loneliness and even took away my own self-belief,'' Oliver said.

In the wake of the Oliver verdict, Racing Minister Denis Napthine has finally said something about the state of the sport, announcing that he has referred the circumstances of Oliver's bet and Racing Victoria's subsequent inquiry to the state's racing integrity chief, Sal Perna.

Perna will have the difficult task of trying to make sense of how Racing Victoria knew about the circumstances of Oliver's bet shortly after it was revealed by Fairfax Media on October 14 but failed to charge him until the end of the spring carnival.

Coming after the fallout from revelations that police are investigating fellow jockey Danny Nikolic for alleged race fixing and his suspension for intimidating chief steward Terry Bailey, the news of Oliver's illegal bet was the last thing Racing Victoria needed as it galloped into the splendour of the spring carnival.

But Racing Victoria made a big problem even worse with its inept handling of the Oliver betting affair. Despite his refusal to comment on Fairfax Media's October 14 report, Oliver did not seek to deny the allegation he placed an illegal bet.

In the three-week lead-up to the Melbourne Cup, Oliver's camp let it be known to senior racing officials that he had indeed placed the bet on Miss Octopussy. Despite this, he remained in the saddle on racing's biggest day and rode the favourite, Americain.

If this situation was not troubling enough, it was made worse by the incredulous reaction of certain Victorian racing officials to Fairfax Media's decision to report Oliver's admission on Melbourne Cup day.

It beggars belief that a professional organisation such as Racing Victoria took almost a month to investigate Oliver's illegal bet and only laid charges on the Monday after the spring carnival ended.

To defend itself from criticism, Racing Victoria resorted to semantics, saying that Oliver's first ''formal admissions'' were only made on Monday, November 12.

Racing Victoria's assertions make no sense because all it had to do is ask one question of Oliver on October 14, the day the illegal bet was revealed: ''Did you place the bet on Miss Octopussy?''

That it apparently took a month to get an answer points to a big problem within Racing Victoria's integrity systems. If Oliver wouldn't answer the question immediately, then why was he allowed to continue riding and earn tens of thousands of dollars in prize money?

On Tuesday morning, Oliver was demonstrably upset when suspended from racing for 10 months, which is on the light side.

No doubt Oliver's admission, his previously unblemished history, his mental state at the time of the Miss Octopussy bet and his age of 40 were factors in the length of the sentence.

Still, it sends a message to others in the industry who might be tempted to break the rules. The negative publicity for Oliver is probably worse than the suspension.

Oliver now has time to attend to his family issues and give his body a rest. Racing Victoria still has much to explain about its handling of this and other integrity issues.

The story Oliver rides away lightly after a hard fall from grace first appeared on The Age.

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