Integrity commissioner tackles alleged corruption in harness racing

Racing integrity commissioner Sal Perna, a former senior Victorian policeman. Photo: Paul Rovere
Racing integrity commissioner Sal Perna, a former senior Victorian policeman. Photo: Paul Rovere

Early last year, the state's racing integrity commissioner, Sal Perna, visited the Victoria Police sports integrity unit holding a confidential file.

Perna is a former homicide policeman who left the force to climb the rungs of corporate Australia before being appointed the guardian of the integrity of harness, thoroughbred and greyhound racing. His file detailed the activities of a suspected corrupt harness racing syndicate that had allegedly been operating for years.

The contents of Perna's briefing, which also touched on the alleged involvement of organised crime and the doping of horses, would not have surprised any keen watcher of harness racing. Harness racing stewards have long strived to confront the alleged crooks said to dominate pockets of the sport, but have mostly failed to do so due to limited resources and insufficient powers.

As a result, Perna has not only identified suspected corrupt figures operating with impunity. He has also met veteran industry participants who had lost faith in the integrity of the sport they once loved.

"I met people who would be crying, saying, 'I am leaving the industry because of what is going on'."

The impunity of suspected harness racing rorters has long been fuelled by their belief that the chief guardians of the sport – the stewards – were, however dedicated, relatively powerless. Take the well known harness racing driver who allegedly works openly with a gangland boss (who, until recently, owned one of the most successful horses in the history of harness racing). This driver was recently found to have bet multiple times on races he was driving in. His penalty was a paltry fine – a mere speeding ticket for the crime figure suspected of having this driver, along with several others, on his pay roll.

Another factor breeding confidence among the suspected crooks was the historical inattention of police, who once regarded sports corruption as a problem for someone else. But by the time Perna walked into the sports integrity unit offices, that attitude had changed. In face, a seismic shift was under way in the way police deal with sporting corruption.

The sports integrity unit is overseen by Superintendent Peter Brigham, a bookish but highly respected senior policeman who once chased corrupt police for a living and helped jail more than a few.

Working for him were senior detectives with a special brief to target those suspected of breaching Victoria's new "cheating in sport" laws as they would investigate a serious crime figure. This meant following the tracks people leave when they are up to no good. Investigating racing is not dissimilar to probing drug dealing. Phone records and money trails are usually a starting point.

And it was where the sports integrity detectives began when they turned to harness racing. Betting analyses dating back several years revealed a pattern of punting surrounding some of the figures named in Perna's briefing. Further analysis linked certain betting plunges to suspicious phone calls. Soon, phones were being monitored in real-time and key racing figures closely watched.

They included Shayne Cramp and his father, Greg, who together manage one of the most successful harness racing operations in Australia.

There is nothing fancy about the Cramp set-up. It's at a training facility in a dusty, dry pocket of north-west Victoria, just a short drive from Mildura, and includes a stabling area for horses and a nondescript family home. Shayne, 31, has previously told reporters the secret to his considerable success – he has pocketed more than $2 million in stakes earnings – was the soft, beach-sand style training track on which his trotters were subjected to a punishing training regime.

"The way our horses race, they are tough and very fit because of our training methods," he said a few months ago.

But police suspected there might be more to Cramp's success than hard work and special sand.  It's understood that detectives have collected evidence that appears to suggest that at least two races involving the Cramps and others were corrupted. It's suspected that betting odds have been manipulated by figures associated with the Cramps on the basis of inside information.  Other races are also under scrutiny.

For instance, on November 12, 2014, Cramp's father, Greg, received a four-week ban from stewards after he drove a horse called Tibytoa. Those who have analysed the race for Fairfax Media say the driving tactics of Greg Cramp were clearly unusual, as was some of the betting on the horse driven to victory in the same race. It was steered by Shayne Cramp.

Despite deep suspicions of stewards, and a growing resentment among their rivals, the Cramps have largely been promoted by Harness Racing Victoria as a good news story. Among their many supporters was a senior harness racing official. Perhaps it is why the Cramps were known to ooze confidence.

Their attitudes may have changed when sports integrity detectives arrived at the Cramps' homes just after dawn on Monday morning and arrested the father and son over allegations they had breached sports integrity laws.

For Perna, the arrests show a sports integrity system working as it should: new laws being enforced by eager detectives with help from his office. Perna says that whatever the outcome of Monday's arrests, Harness Racing Victoria must now acknowledge it has a major problem.

Perna says harness racing anti-corruption measures are far less robust than those in thoroughbred racing. This is despite the fact that the headquarters of the two sporting codes are next to each other. Says Perna: "Harness racing has nothing like the integrity measures in thoroughbred. But all they need to do is cross the driveway to see how it could be done."

This story Integrity commissioner tackles alleged corruption in harness racing first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.