COMMENT:

Whether the current harness racing race fixing blow ends up a bleeding nose or a gaping wound will almost certainly depend on the contents of texts and phone calls now in police hands.

Some of the industry's biggest names spent at least part of today in police custody, and while unconfirmed, some have already been charged with race fixing or similar offences.

Names at the centre of the investigation named Operation Inca include last season's premiership-winning driver Blair Orange, the man he dethroned for that title Dexter Dunn, and Dunn's brother John, himself a leading driver.

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The Herald understands at least one other successful Canterbury trainer was extensively questioned by police, while they also visited the stables of champion trainers Mark Purdon and Natalie Rasmussen, with Purdon reportedly not part of the investigation.

While police today suggested race fixing and potentially drugs are at the centre of their investigations the Herald was told that illegal performance-enhancing substances used on horses are not the focal point of Operation Inca. The investigation was sparked by information passed to police by the Racing Integrity Unit as early as April last year and police have tapped phones and checked text messages as part of the investigation.

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What they found or are still to find in those texts or calls will be crucial to building a case against any of those under investigation because race fixing is incredibly hard to prove. And often even harder to actually achieve.

While there have and always will be those who are suspicious of racing being "fixed", the reality is it has never been cleaner because of technology.

Most trainers and drivers/jockeys don't bet because it is too easy to trace, with bookies openly supplying betting records to authorities.

So any of the people under investigation placing a bet on a race they were involved with would set off alarm bells regardless of the result.

Which is why the spouses of several of those under investigation were also questioned today, to see whether they had placed bets on their partner's behalf. That is almost certain to be a dead end.

What is more likely to end up at the centre of the investigation and any future charges will be betting activities of third parties who bet on information supplied by horsepeople and may have rewarded them for that information.

That in itself is an offence but a relatively minor one.

The real problem for harness racing would be if any of the parties involved colluded to rig a race, supplied that information to a third party and benefited from that information and any money subsequently won. That would have huge ramifications, an iceberg to racing's Titanic.

Text messages, phone calls or face-to-face conversations between punters looking for a tip, even just an opinion, from horsepeople have been going on for as long as there have been phones or racetracks.

So if the text messages, recordings and apparently emails, the latter a seemingly very strange way to fix a race, confirm that any drivers knew each other's plans and passed that information on, then harness racing has a problem like cricket's famous match fixing scandals.

The other option is a punter ringing multiple horsepeople, putting that information together and betting accordingly for their own purposes.

Christchurch-based owner Graham Beirne also had property raided today but was overseas and denies any wrongdoing.

Whether any punter, in New Zealand or overseas, would have the money and more importantly the power to fix a race and convince the people at the centre of this investigation is questionable. Such scams are incredibly hard to pull off, as the mastermind needs drivers capable of controlling the main variables of the race without outside interference.

The money gambled on New Zealand harness races is relatively small compared with overseas thoroughbred action and any unusual transactions are easily spotted and the driving tactics around them noted.

The electronic trail is so pronounced, the telecommunications so easy to track, anybody engaging in prolonged race-fixing would be certain to get caught.

This investigation could last a long time but regardless of how it pans out, to the punting public, perception is often reality, and harness racing's reputation has taken a huge blow.

The irony is this: Orange and Dexter Dunn travelled to almost every race meeting they attended last season together. I spoke to them before, after and sometimes even during those meetings. They are, hand on heart, two of the worst tipsters I have ever met among the leading horsepeople and if your betting strategy was punting on what they thought was going to happen, you would go broke.

But now the racing industry will wait to find out what was said, texted and written.