Several of New Zealand's leading harness racing horsepeople are at the centre of a race-fixing investigation by police that saw 10 horse stables raided today.
Police investigating suspected race-fixing and corruption in the harness racing industry executed search warrants in Christchurch, Manawatu and Invercargill.
The Herald understands the investigations are into alleged race fixing involving up to four stables - with the possibility of collusion to effect the outcome of races for either gambling profit or to earn stake money.
The properties raided resulted in well-known horse trainers having their computers and phones seized - which would suggest police will be looking for evidence of gambling on horses allegedly involved in the race fixing.
Racing Minister Winston Peters expressed his deep disappointment at allegations of race-fixing.
"This is a sad development. New Zealanders need to have confidence that the racing industry has integrity and is not above the law," he said from Nauru.
"It highlights how important it is that we have a strong, independent authority like the Racing Integrity Unit to ensure offending behaviour is brought to light. We can have confidence that the system is working."
Harness Racing New Zealand chief executive, Edward Rennell said they were contacted and told by the Racing Integrity Unit this morning that Police were interviewing a number of industry participants as part of an ongoing investigation.
He said it was the first time they'd heard of the investigation.
"From our perspective it's very concerning, but it shows the industry's integrity units are working," he said.
"There's a judicial process that needs to be completed - and the RIU and Police have our total support in doing it."
Police visited champion trainer Mark Purdon and Natalie Rasmussen's All Stars Harness Racing stables at Rolleston just outside Christchurch this morning.
Purdon was not extensively questioned or arrested and is not believed to be a suspect in any of the race-fixing allegations.
Purdon told the Herald that he had not been questioned by police.
"They [police] had a look around here but they weren't that interested in me."
Purdon said he had no issue with them looking over his property.
He was unaware that a major investigation had been under way.
Police officers left the property shortly after midday.
"They drove to their main aim, but I'm quite confident… well, they seemed quite happy when they left. I'm quite confident there's nothing there that I need to worry about," Purdon said.
Rasmussen was still being spoken to by police this afternoon, Purdon said.
But he added: "As far as race-fixing goes I know there's nothing involved there, but I'm quite comfortable. But as I say, they weren't that interested in me."
Police also visited a property at Woodend Beach, 25kms north of Christchurch, this morning, where a number of trainers operate.
The Herald understands police were seen at a property run by trainers John and Robert Dunn.
When spoken to by the Herald this afternoon, Robert Dunn said he'd just arrived in the city. It was a planned trip, he said, and that: "I just happened to hear things had happened earlier this morning."
While police are still questioning a number of harness racing licence holders it is also suspected non-licence holders are being questioned, almost certainly in relation to betting activities.
While police also searched properties for performance-enhancing drugs, that are often legal but banned in racing, that is not believed to be the main or even major part of today's raids.
Police confirmed that officers had today conducted search warrants at eight properties in Christchurch, one in Invercargill and another in Manawatu.
Several people were now speaking to police.
"Today's warrants were the result of a long-running investigation by the National Organised Crime Group into alleged corruption within the harness racing industry," said Detective Superintendent Tim Anderson.
He said the investigation began with information supplied by the Racing Integrity Unit.
"Police have been working in partnership with the RIU and other relevant organisations throughout the investigation."
The investigation was ongoing and police expected to provide further details in the coming days, Anderson said.
New Zealand Racing Board chairwoman Glenda Hughes said allegations of race-fixing were disappointing but showed "the racing integrity system is working".
"The actions taken today resulted from information received by the Racing Integrity Unit [RIU], an independent body charged with maintaining integrity in the sport," she said.
"That information initiated a co-ordinated and careful investigation between NZ Police and the RIU.
"The value of having an independent integrity body focused on investigating and prosecuting any alleged impropriety is reinforced in this action."
Racing Board CEO John Allen said: "Those involved in the industry and the Kiwi punters who support it must have confidence in the integrity of the sport.
"I am confident that our integrity systems work and that where alleged breaches of our rules and of criminal law are identified, they are investigated and prosecuted appropriately."
* Anyone with relevant information is urged to contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.