A HARNESS racing trainer who pleaded guilty to being involved in the corruption scandal engulfing the sport has fears for his family's safety after getting threatening phone calls from a horse owner, an inquiry has heard.
During the first day of an at-times farcical special inquiry into the scandal yesterday, trainer Dean Atkinson said his family had received several threatening calls during which a horse owner he used to work for had accused him of ''being a snitch''.
He asked the inquiry, set up by Harness Racing NSW, to restore public faith in the sport, to close the court during his evidence because ''there are some things in the brief [of evidence] which leads me to fear for my family''.
The inquiry panel, made up of the state's chief horse racing steward, Ray Murrihy, the former Victorian steward Des Gleeson and Justice Wayne Haylen, immediately closed the inquiry.
Mr Atkinson is one of a group of trainers involved in the corruption scandal, in which harness racing stewards were paid to avoid testing certain horses for performance-enhancing drugs at particular race meets. The races were then the subject of substantial betting plunges.
Mr Atkinson has pleaded guilty to giving harness racing steward Matthew Bentley money in exchange for not drug testing one of his horses, The Reluctant Dancer, at two race meetings last year, and for offering to pay the same steward on another occasion. Mr Bentley has not been charged.
Harness Racing NSW's representative at the inquiry, Reid Sanders, also requested that a transcript of an earlier interview conducted with Mr Atkinson as part of its investigation not be released to the public for safety reasons.
''Some of these people play for keeps,'' Mr Sanders said.
''I have also been subject to verbal … or particular threats and I'm very mindful of the request that has been made by Mr Atkinson and his wife.''
Last year a car belonging to the new chief steward, Bill Cable, was firebombed outside his home.
Another trainer, Greg Sarina, and his son, driver Ben Sarina, were also called to appear before the inquiry yesterday to face charges that they gave false evidence to Harness Racing NSW.
Phone records were tendered by Mr Sanders which allegedly showed Mr Sarina snr making calls to former racing steward Paul O'Toole. Father and son later gave evidence they did not know who the number belonged to.
However, the panel lambasted Mr Sanders for failing to have concrete proof that the phone number actually belonged to Mr O'Toole.
The inquiry heard that the phone was in fact registered to a man named Nathan Milne. Mr Sanders said this was the first time he had heard that name. He and the other harness racing investigators relied on police statements alleging that it was Mr O'Toole's phone, but registered in a different name.
The chairman of the panel, Justice Haylen, said the matter had been left in an ''unsatisfactory state'' and that the evidence being presented pre-empted the police investigation into the scandal to an ''overwhelming'' degree.
''We need some concrete evidence that Paul O'Toole actually used that number,'' he said.
Justice Haylen said that without this information it was possible that a number of the cases before the panel could not be completed properly and that the matter would have to be adjourned.
''You have to actually establish the case against Mr Sarina - it is not up to him to prove he is not guilty,'' he said.
More than $2.2 billion is wagered on harness racing each year.