Racing: Racing takes to the streets

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The Independent Online
AROUND A thousand Italian owners, trainers and jockeys yesterday staged a rowdy protest outside the Agriculture Ministry in Rome to press for urgent measures to help Italian racing. Some of them uprooted saplings from the entrance to the Ministry and hurled them at the windows. Others carried coffins and banners bearing slogans such as "Racing - a death sentence" and "Ten thousand thoroughbreds to the knackers' yards".

All sections of the racing industry - even the horses - have been on strike since 1 January in order to draw attention to the serious problems facing a sport on which 50,000 people depend for their livelihood. The Rome protest was just the latest in a wave of demonstrations. In Milan on Tuesday several thousand people and a dozen or so horses marched from San Siro Hippodrome to the city centre. There was similar action in Bologna.

The racing industry's demands include a greater share of the proceeds from betting, more betting shops, and less prohibitive tax policies.

"We are not scared of lotteries and other gambling competitors and we don't want subsidies," the president of the trotting drivers' union, Luigi Canzi, said, "we just want to be able to run things professionally and profitably."

Delegations from both racing and trotting met the Junior Minister of Agriculture, Roberto Borroni, yesterday but after the encounter a Trotting Association spokesman said the strike, which has already cost millions of pounds, will continue. "We received the same old promises but no guarantees and no guidelines for the much needed reform of the sector," he said.

Last year was a terrible one for Italian racing. On-course betting turnover dropped by 20 per cent, attendance fell by 25 per cent and there were nine per cent fewer races run. At the same time, the state's coffers have been overflowing with the success of a series of new super-lotteries which are luring punters away from their traditional flutter on the horses. The football pools have also seen a 20 per cent drop in takings.

The drop in betting turnover - which helps to fund prize-money - means that races are becoming less valuable and owners and trainers are losing out. One of the industry's requests is for a guaranteed minimum for the prize pool, but the Agriculture Minister, Paolo De Castro, has dismissed this as nonsense. "What are we supposed to do? Use Italians' taxes to raise the prize-money. We need to increase the betting figures through new ideas, creativeness and more betting outlets."

While Trifecta bets can be placed at a wide range of bars and betting outlets throughout Italy, the number of off-course shops where it is possible to have simple win and place bets has been frozen for years. There are just over 300 and in some areas - the southern mountain region of Basilicata or the Valle D'Aosta bordering France - there are no betting shops at all.

UNIRE (National Union for the Promotion of the Equine Race) has lacked the necessary direction and capacity to develop the sport successfully. It used to oversee the whole industry, but it recently lost control of betting which has now been passed to the Ministry of Finance.