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Australia ramps up crackdown amid fixing scandals

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australian thoroughbred racing has moved to strengthen anti-corruption powers after being embarrassed by a string of scandals during the peak racing season.

Australia's racing industry has been rocked by a wide-reaching police probe into race-fixing in the southern state of Victoria that has swept up prominent jockeys and cast doubts over the sport's integrity in recent months.

Racing Victoria (RV), which overseas the country's richest race in the Melbourne Cup among other marquee events, said it would add two full-time stewards to its integrity unit and push for harsher penalties for race-fixing offenders.

"Deterrence and detection are the platforms of our integrity program and the additional stewards will ensure an even greater presence in the field," RV chief executive Bernard Saundry said in a statement on Monday.

"We are undertaking an extensive review of the introduction of minimum and maximum penalties which would serve as a further deterrent for those considering breaching the rules.

"The introduction of harsher penalties definitely has merit and will be given very strong consideration."

Racing Victoria is itself under scrutiny over the handling of a betting scandal involving Damien Oliver, one of the country's most prominent jockeys.

Oliver, who rode Media Puzzle to victory in the 2002 Melbourne Cup, was banned for a total of 10 months last month after admitting to placing a A$10,000 ($10,400) bet via a third party on a rival horse in 2010.

Despite being under investigation, Oliver was permitted to ride throughout the state's high-profile Spring Carnival, including last month's A$6.2 million Melbourne Cup, sparking a storm of criticism from local media following reports the 40-year-old had already confessed his guilt to investigators.

Victoria's racing minister has demanded a probe into the handling of the case, which cast a pall over the running of the country's most famous race.

Oliver's ban, which will still allow him to participate in the most lucrative races during next year's Spring Carnival, had opened up new lines of enquiry for other potential breaches in the betting scandal, Racing Victoria said.

At least two other races are currently being probed for betting-related misconduct by police and racing investigators.

($1 = 0.9585 Australian dollars)

(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Greg Stutchbury)

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