A jury has found champion harness racing driver Greg Bennett not guilty of bribing a corrupt steward, who the defence cast as a silver-suit-wearing mudslinger who told a "big fat lie" to shift blame from himself and possibly other crooked industry players.
One recipient of the "mud" was the chief executive of Harness Racing NSW, Sam Nati, who the disgraced former steward, Matthew Bentley, described groundlessly as the "cocaine king" during his evidence at Bennett's trial in the Sydney District Court.
Late on Wednesday, a jury of eight men and four women took only minutes to return a verdict of not guilty on all six charges against Bennett of giving or offering bribes. Bentley, who turned Crown witness after striking a deal for immunity against prosecution, had claimed Bennett paid him bribes ranging from $200 to $1000 in return for not drug-testing horses driven by him and trained by his father, Jim Bennett.
Judge James Bennett (no relation) had told the jurors that the Crown case rested on the reliability of Bentley, who Nati had confronted in August 2011 about claims of corruption and told him to resign or be sacked. At Nati's prompting during that meeting, Bentley had named five industry people involved in corruption, but those names – suppressed by the judge – did not include Greg Bennett, defence barrister Charles Waterstreet told the jury.
The jury had heard Bennett and Bentley formed a telephone friendship and exchanged calls even on race days, a relationship that the driver conceded his colleagues may have "frowned upon".
But Waterstreet suggested Bentley courted Bennett to curry favour with the "best driver in the country". The court heard Bennett, NSW state champion for all but one season between 2000 and 2010, described as the sport's answer to Damien Oliver.
The barrister said his client came to the case as an honest man with an unblemished record while "Mr Bentley walks in here as a criminal without conviction because of the deal he and Nick [a private investigator] did with police to get off scot-free and with all the goodies", meaning the proceeds of his corruption.
Jim and Greg Bennett hugged tearfully after the verdict. "After two years, it is a huge relief to clear my name," Greg Bennett said.
He could not say if and when he would return to the track. HRNSW still has to complete its own inquiry into Bennett, separate from the police investigation. But the driver was stood down when the criminal charges were laid and chief steward and integrity officer Reid Sanders – who also gave evidence at the trial – said he would consider Bennett's status on Thursday in light of the verdict.
Nati told Fairfax Media: "I don't do cocaine and never have." He reasoned that, given he was the man who dismissed Bentley, the claim "should be seen for what it's worth – a free hit or salvo".
No evidence was given to suggest otherwise and Waterstreet described the claim as "mud".
Bennett and Bentley spoke regularly by phone but Waterstreet said the steward "cherry-picked" racing records to harvest false claims that the driver bribed him or offered a bribe so he would not swab the horses Mahogany Run, My Bravado, Chiang Mai, Ace-attack Jack, Blaze of Art and The Cotton Club.
with Chris Roots