Golden Punters

Each week, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Australians have a bet on the races, or have a fling on other forms of gambling. Most lose.

If their accounts were to be believed, Australia’s most successful punters happened to go on parade before the NSW Royal Commission into Drug Trafficking.

Their extraordinary betting coups and lucky streaks have prompted cutting and sarcastic responses from the presiding judge, Mr Justice Woodward, and assisting counsel Bill Fisher QC.

The biggest bettor of all was Robert Trimbole, named by the commission as the controller of the Sydney end of the Griffith-based marihuana trade.

Unlike some other witnesses, who could not remember the names of horses, jockeys or even racetracks, Trimbole produced 166 pages of his own betting records.

Trimbole’s records showed a turnover of millions of dollars, which he maintained accounted for much of his income over a period when more than $6 million turned up in what Fisher QC described as ‘various corners and pockets’ while Trimbole was an undischarged bankrupt.

In a breakdown made by commission staff, the record worked out at 1254 losing bets and 772 winning bets -with $2 018 350 in losses and $3 522 249.50 in wins, making a net profit of $1 503 899.50.

In one 22-day period, after starting off with $11 200 in his ‘betting account’, Trimbole showed a balance of $197 904.

In less than one year he claimed to have won $389116 from bookmaker Terry Page, yet Page is quoted in commission transcripts as saying that, while Trimbole did bet heavily and won big money, he believed he would have won most of the money back from him.

Trimbole also claimed to have ended up winning $164000 from bookmaker Bill Waterhouse, who could not be sure whether Trimbole really won or lost.

In contrast to his betting with bookmakers, Trimbole’s telephone betting account with the TAB for a 12-month period disclosed that he had wagered $222 626, gaining dividends of $205016 — and finishing with a book loss of $17 610.

Describing one series of winning bets which coincided with the purchase of a liquor business called Flemington Cellars, Fisher QC said: ‘This is one of those examples which have cropped up elsewhere where the need for large sums of money seems to be producing it. It exhibits the need for the horses to run faster, and they do’. Or as Mr Justice Woodward concluded: ‘All this happened at a time when Trimbole needed to win $90000 to pay for the liquor store at Flemington! No doubt the money was available but needed laundering’.

Antonio Sergi, farmer and winery owner of Griffith, nominated by the commission as principal at the Riverina end of the marihuana trade, told of winning $48600 over a three-week period.

Yet, in the witness box, he could not recall when the bets were won, how much the bets were, what odds were taken, what bookmakers were used, or what racecourses were involved.

According to commission investigations, the winnings coincided with payments due to grapegrowers.

In the words of Fisher, when there appeared to be need to make such a payment, ‘it seems to come bobbing up from somewhere and this time it bubbles off the racecourse’.

Some of the winnings were substantiated by evidence of cheques from the TAB. A TAB representative told the commission that Sergi was not a regular punter.

In view of Sergi’s phenomenal wins in a short period, said Fisher QC, it was difficult to ascertain why he did not continue betting.

The TAB representative said it would have been possible for an individual to purchase a successful punter’s tickets with the object of ‘washing money’.

With $33000 of the winnings traced to betting by Trimbole, Fisher QC concluded: ‘An obvious attempt has been made to transfer $48600 tax free to Antonio Sergi’.

Sergi’s brother-in-law, Luigi Pochi, who was in partnership with Sergi and Trimbole in a wine outlet in Canberra and named by Fisher QC as the ‘Canberra connection’ of the marihuana trade, also had what was described as ‘astonishing’ success at betting.

In 1975, Pochi had been arrested in a police raid on a thirteen-hectare marihuana plantation at Colleambly, near Griffith, and served a term in gaol.

Over a period of eleven months Pochi had placed forty-nine bets, twenty-six of which had won — winning him $28500.

His record of betting, which in many cases involved the last bet recorded against winning horses in the records of Cooma bookmaker Brian Henry Crawford, was said by Fisher QC to have been ‘beyond the realm of probability for such a sequence just to happen’.


Rocco Barbaro, also a brother-in-law of Sergi, who managed to establish a 60-square home in Canberra valued at $100000, claimed he had won over $40000 playing French roulette at an illegal gambling club at Bondi Junction in Sydney.

Barbaro pleaded guilty in 1974 to growing marihuana at Tharbogang, Griffith, and was fined only $250 and a suspended sentence on entering a good behaviour bond.

Explaining his gambling success, Barbaro said the first time he had gambled at the club he had won $12 000 or $13000. ‘Another time’, he said, ‘I went to Sydney to try and auction my farm at St Marys. It was a long weekend and I won about $27000 which I won in two lots during the weekend — the first about $12000 and the second $15000. That is all.’

He was paid by cheques which showed up in his Canberra bank accounts.

Pressed to outline his playing method, Barbaro said: ‘There is a large table. There are numbers on the table. You put the token which you get for money on the number and if you get the number, you get the money. There is a wheel on the table. They put a little ball to roll around the wheel and logically if the ball stops on your number you win.’

Fisher QC then told the inquiry: ‘What our inquiries disclosed is this: if one attends this club with cash, one goes to a certain window or table and purchases tokens with which to conduct the gambling. You can purchase any amount you like. You then can do one of two or three things. You can do nothing at all, or you can play at the roulette (not in the form described, but the more regular form) or you can play other games or you can walk around and appear to be playing or perhaps hazard small sums.

‘But at the end of the evening you return to the table where you purchased your tokens. If you present the tokens they are redeemed for cash. Nobody asks you whether the tokens represent winnings or whether the balance represents a loss or whether the balance represents a gain, or whether, instead, you have just left them in your pocket and never used them at all.

‘So the fact that somebody undoubtedly leaves with a cheque for a large sum goes no part of the way at all to demonstrate that he has won a single dollar.’

Mr Justice Woodward: ‘Another method of laundering dirty money?’

Fisher QC: ‘Yes, Your Honor’.

Francesco Barbaro, farmer, of Griffith, also a brother-in-law of Sergi, claimed $22000 in betting wins to explain his income.

Yet when asked what racecourse he had attended, he could not remember, nor could he remember whether it was on a Saturday or a Wednesday.

In his case, Fisher QC, after questioning the source for any betting stake money, suggested that it could be an example of ‘dealing in the selling of tickets’ at racecourses.

Commented Mr Justice Woodward: ‘so that if somebody followed the punter around and saw that he put a large bet on a horse, you would take note of that and then, if the horse won, you would buy his ticket’.

When Vincent Peter Ferraro, of Smithfield, an outer western suburb of Sydney, entered the witness box and claimed that he had won $70000 at the races, he was immediately challenged by Fisher QC.

‘All right’, asked Fisher QC, ‘you won it at the races, did you? Just take a deep breath and tell us all about it’.

Ferraro told of going to Randwick racecourse and backing a daily double, which had won him $36000 on another daily double at Rosehill the following Wednesday.

Explaining how he had had such success in winning so much money in an isolated two-meeting plunge, Ferraro said he had gone to Randwick and ‘just ran into a complete stranger and we just got talking’ and the stranger had given him the tip.

Ferraro claimed that he had collected his winnings in bundles of $50 notes, which he had then deposited in his bank.

The commission identified the banking of that amount of money, but bank sheets showed that he had deposited only one $50 note.

The remainder had included $38200 in $20 notes, $31 670 in $10 notes and $90 in $5 notes.

Ferraro protested: ‘That wasn’t my money . . . It can’t be my money’.

Bank records established that it was.

It meant, emphasised Fisher QC, that on each occasion it had been ‘totally and completely impossible’ for Ferraro to have won what he said he had.

Fisher added that Ferraro had been ‘caught out, caught out fair and square — and, what is more, twice’.

Under cross-examination Ferraro admitted: ‘On paper, as it appears, it is physically impossible for me to say that I did not win that much money’.

Nunzio Greco, builder, of Griffith, called upon to explain a payment of over $20000, attributed it to a lucky betting streak. ‘Call it beginner’s luck’, he said, ‘because I haven’t had any luck since. I backed Piemelon Bay when it won three times in a row at Rosehill’.

Fisher QC attacked his claim as a ‘tissue of lies . . . absolute nonsense’, adding: ‘someone has given him $20 000 to $23 000 on some account, and we do not know who and he plainly is not going to tell us’.

Russell George Spencer, a convicted drug offender, maintained that some of his unexplained income had come from gambling, including wins of up to $2000 at the late Joe Taylor’s gambling club in Kellet Street, Kings Cross.

Spencer claimed he had won $15000 from betting on horse races, and denied suggestions that he had given his wife the impression that he had actually lost overall. However, under questioning, he could not name one horse he had followed.

A police officer, Sergeant John Kenneth Ellis, formerly of Griffith, subsequently gaoled for conspiring with marihuana growers, also pointed to betting wins to justify an income of $55000 above his police salary and other known sources over the past five years.

Although witnesses gave evidence supporting Ellis’ story that he was a regular punter, Fisher QC described his claim as ‘just another account similar to all the other stories that Your Honor has heard’.

Based on a telephone TAB betting account maintained by Ellis, in a twelve-month period to August 1978, he had wagered $7151, and won $7477 — giving a net return of $326. That had worked out at a profit ratio of 4.3 per cent.

For Ellis to have made $55 000 in five years, said Fisher QC, if the same percentage had applied to all his betting transactions, he would have had a turnover of $1.25 million.

Stanley John Smith, described before the commission as a ‘notorious criminal’, claimed gambling wins as the source of $56000 in otherwise unaccounted-for income.

On one successful betting plunge, Smith said it had resulted from a tip given by George Freeman about a daily double involving the horse, Il Capo.

Smith’s barrister, Mr Cochrane, contended that Smith was ‘putting himself up not as a normal punter but, rather, as someone who has taken notice of tips from a man who knows, Mr Freeman, and in a sense Mr Freeman is well regarded’.

He added: ‘. . . he is well regarded in the racing community and he knows what horses are going to come home’.

Mr Justice Woodward: ‘That would be on the basis it is not a matter of luck, it is a matter of organisation?’

Cochrane: ‘Perhaps. I would not put it that strongly, but perhaps. If one looks at it in that way, the possibility, then one, would consider it is not unreasonable to have these types of wins’.

During the Street Royal Commission in NSW in 1983, a witness told of Freeman giving regular tips to former NSW Chief Stipendiary Magistrate, Murray Farquhar, which were 98 to 99 per cent accurate.


from Connections 1 by Bob Bottom

Illustration by Michael Fitzjames