Probe into race-caller's missing cash

STEVE KILGALLON
Last updated 05:00 09/12/2012
Tony Lee
PHIL REID/Fairfax NZ
SIGNING OFF: Tony Lee at Wellington’s Trax Bar.

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Police are  investigating missing cash from a bar run by a prominent racing commentator.

The pokies at Wellington's Trax Bar, owned by former Trackside caller Tony Lee, have been switched off because the takings are overdue to be banked with the machine's owners, the New Zealand Community Trust.

Publicans with poker machines are meant to bank their takings one week in arrears, meaning they often carry a large amount of cash. Sources suggested the missing cash may amount to more than $50,000.

The chief executive of the New Zealand Community Trust, Mike Knell, confirmed he had ordered the machines be turned off, and said they were now "following a process" over the missing money. Asked if it involved the police, he said "maybe".

Later, Knell gave the Sunday Star-Times a statement, saying: "The machines are turned off at the venue, we are in discussions with the operator and are following a process but matters are commercially confidential."

Wellington Police said they were investigating the missing money. Department of Internal Affairs director Maarten Quivooy said Lee had laid a theft complaint, and they were "supporting the investigation because we have a wider interest to see if it reveals anything further [or whether] we should pay attention to individuals or the society in the background".

Lee, regarded as one of the best race callers in the business, suddenly quit the Trackside channel in October, just days before he was due to call a major race meeting.

Earlier this year, the TAB took direct ownership of the outlet at Trax Bar, a move a source said was unusual as most pub TABs are directly owned by the publican.

TAB chief executive Chris Bayliss would not comment on suggestions the Trax Bar branch owed the TAB money. "Any indebtedness between us is a commercial arrangement," he said. When pressed, Bayliss added: "I won't go into that, we have a commercial arrangement with Trax Bar."

Later, TAB communications manager John Mitchell described the takeover as "maximising the business opportunity . . . at a strategic location". He said it wasn't the only directly run pub site, although he couldn't offer numbers. Mitchell didn't deny the TAB was owed money from the site, saying: "I couldn't say one way or the other."

When approached for comment at Trax, Lee told the Star-Times it was a "bad time" due to a family crisis and refused to comment on the missing pokies money, the TAB or his exit from Trackside.

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Bayliss said Lee had not been sacked from race-calling duties after his abrupt departure from Trackside in October. "The way I can short-cut all this noise is we haven't dismissed Tony, he is welcome to come back as an employee, he resigned for his own reasons," he said.

Lee's resignation has been the subject of intense speculation among TAB employees.

Trax Bar, beside platform one of the Wellington Railway Station, has 18 poker machines. The bar was open for business last week, but the pokies were closed, with a staff member telling customers they were "choosing not" to open them at present.

Lee left Trackside days before he was due to call the Wellington Guineas meeting. An email to staff from Trackside boss Glen Broomhall said Lee had been thanked for his service and "wished him all the best for the future". No reason was given for Lee's resignation and he didn't comment to media after the news broke.

Lee had a strong reputation as one of New Zealand's best commentators and was famous for his call of the 1994 Wellington Cup and the line "the dream burst into reality" as the horse Castletown won the race for the third time.

- Sunday Star Times

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