A disqualified Queensland horse trainer has been acquitted of fraud charges over the alleged doping of racehorses because an extensive and detailed prosecution circumstantial case could not prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Toowoomba Magistrate Kay Ryan last Friday found Darling Downs horse trainer Benjamin Mark Currie, 30, and a co-accused Anthony Raymond Stephens, 27, not guilty on one count each of fraud after a five-day summary trial.
Barrister Paul Rutledge, for the Queensland Police Service, had alleged Currie dishonestly gained a benefit from horses he trained to compete in Racing Queensland thoroughbred horse races by doping them between 14 February 2017 and 15 February 2019.
It was alleged Stephens’ involvement was as a party to the scheme – which was to submit completed declarations that horses were eligible to run or not liable to be disqualified, scratched or withdrawn as a result of the alleged offending – between 9 August 2018, and 15 February 2019.
Magistrate Ryan, in a 19-page written decision, said that in all Queensland criminal proceedings the onus was on the prosecution to prove its case “beyond a reasonable doubt”.
“If this were a case where the onus of proof was on the balance of probabilities, then it would be open to the court to find against (Currie and Stephens),” she said.
“However, the onus of proof (in criminal matters) is that of beyond a reasonable doubt. In a case (like this one) where the majority of evidence is circumstantial, it is necessary that guilt should not only be a rational inference to be drawn from the evidence, but also that it should be the only rational inference that could be drawn from the circumstances.”
The court was told the pair, and two other men, had been involved in an alleged scheme to illegally improve the performance of horses in 14 separate races for prizemoney via the administration of a substance or substances on the day of a race and prior to the start in accordance with the Australian Rules of Racing and the Queensland Local Rules.
“It (was) alleged that the defendant Currie represented, by way of nominating, making a declaration of acceptance or allowing a horse to race, that the horse was eligible to run or not liable to being disqualified, scratched or withdrawn from the race or otherwise starting in the race,” she said.
However, Barristers Michael Copley and Steve Kissick, for Currie and Stephens respectively, argued the so-called benefit obtained was a combination of Currie’s actions in nominating a horse for a race and then in his declaring acceptance of the weight assigned by the handicapper.
“In other words, (the defence) argument is that the benefit of participation was complete or was obtained upon the act of acceptance by the trainer that at the time of both nomination and acceptance, there was no rule preventing the horse being treated (or allegedly doped).
“(Mr Copley for Currie drew) an analogy with circumstances where a licensed driver with a valid licence could not be said to have fraudulently gained the benefit of driving if he (or she) decided to drive the car know that the car’s brakes were completely inoperable.
“While that conduct would be capable of punishment under the relevant traffic laws, the benefit of being able to drive had been gained prior to the wrongful conduct.
“Mr Copley submitted that if the court found against this submission, then the court could not be satisfied that the prosecution had proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant Currie had fraudulently gained the benefit for himself on the evidence presented.
“Mr Kissick, on behalf of defendant Stephens, submitted that if defendant Currie is found not guilty, then defendant Stephens is also not guilty.”
In acquitting the pair, Magistrate Ryan said that in this case there was no evidence that any of the horses tested positive of prohibited substances on race day and little evidence that a prohibited substance was ever administered.
“On the whole of the evidence I cannot be satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant Currie committed the criminal offence of fraud by dishonestly obtaining a benefit, that is participation in a race … and I find the defendant Currie not guilty,” she said
“I also cannot be satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant Stephens had actual knowledge of any alleged ‘scheme’ or was part of a joint criminal enterprise and I find him not guilty.”
During the hearing, Mr Rutledge submitted that a great deal of the QPS case against the pair was contained in a number of documents, including analyses of bank records, recordings of telephone call intercepts, WhatsApp social media and SMS mobile phone messages between various parties.
Earlier this month, two other horse trainers and co-offenders in the alleged ‘scheme’ pleaded guilty in the Toowoomba Magistrates Court to one count each of dishonestly gaining a benefit from administering substances to horses in Toowoomba and elsewhere between 14 February 2017 and 15 February 2019.
David John Litzow, 43, and Denis Gordon Holbeck, 50, were each fined $2000 and $5000 respectively, with Acting Magistrate Roger Stark ordering no conviction be recorded against them.