Harness racing champion says claim he paid bribe 'a lie'

Champion harness racing driver Greg Bennett says he developed a friendship with a steward and spoke regularly to him by phone - including on race days - about rugby league, family and their industry, but never about ensuring his horses were not drug-tested.

Corrupt former steward Matthew Bentley has turned Crown witness in exchange for immunity and he alleges the pair discussed an arrangement not to swab horses driven by Mr Bennett and trained by his father, Jim Bennett.

At Mr Bennett's trial in the Sydney District Court on Monday, he said Mr Bentley was lying and he denied that, during their phone calls, he had used terms such as ''bicarb'' or ''milkshaking'' or ''beaut'', references to illegal substances administered to horses before races to boost their performance.

Mr Bennett has pleaded not guilty to six counts of giving or offering Mr Bentley bribes, which allegedly ranged from $200 to $1000, at six harness meetings in 2010 and 2011.

The accused told the court he had been NSW's leading driver, having won the state title 10 times between 2000 and 2011, and that he held the record for the most wins in a season - 233 in 2006.

In almost three decades in the industry, he had never been charged with any crime or accused of any corrupt racing conduct until now.

''I think Mr Bentley took a shine to me because I was a leading driver,'' Mr Bennett said. Mr Bentley, who was ''young'', had been first to make contact in 2009, when they got talking at the track, often about rugby league.

Mr Bennett agreed with Guy Newton, for the Crown, that his contact with Mr Bentley was ''far in excess'' of that with any other steward, but he did not believe it was inappropriate.

''Did it concern you that you had contact with a steward on the very day of a race meeting?'' Mr Newton asked. ''No.''

Why, on busy race days, when he might have to drive six to eight horses, would he take time for a ''general chit-chat'' with Mr Bentley? Mr Bennett did not consider it unusual given their many other calls in 2010 and 2011.

Phone records showed he called Mr Bentley and they spoke for 316 seconds on May 5, 2010, the same day Mr Bennett was to drive Mahogany Run, a horse trained by his father, at Menangle. Mr Newton suggested he called Mr Bentley to confirm the horse would not be tested. ''No.''

Asked by defence barrister Charles Waterstreet if he ever gave money to Mr Bentley, Mr Bennett said: ''I say it's a lie.''

Mr Waterstreet attacked Mr Bentley's credibility, saying police had arranged his immunity from prosecution even after the steward had been fined for improper conduct at Rosehill racecourse.

A police contact known as Nick had introduced police to Mr Bentley at Parramatta Leagues Club. After the defence sought Nick's surname last week, it emerged he was Nicholas Mamouzelos - a club official and ''a private investigator formerly employed by police''.

Mr Waterstreet took his client through transcripts of  police tapes of his phone calls, which have been played to the jury. They are tapes not of his calls with Mr Bentley but with horse owners and trainers who had done business with Mr Bennett’s father, whose horses the son drove and for whom he did trackwork.

Mr Bennett told one caller that a horse called Chiang Mai ‘‘goes quite honest’’, which simply meant he ran well and consistently. In another call he referred to a horse wearing a little tongue tie, a drop-nose band and boots.

‘‘Sounds like someone from Darlinghurst,’’ Mr Waterstreet said.

The trial continues.

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