A day at the races… in Rome

There’s an unavoidable sense of doom once through the turnstiles of Rome’s Capannelle racecourse.

Italian thoroughbred racing has been in crisis for years now. It’s on the verge of perishing.

Italian tote betting has decreased by 80% over the past decade (from €2.2b to €423m).

Prizemoney has fallen with stories of slow payment common.

Influential European owners therefore avoid Capannelle and her Milanese equivalent San Siro.

Their stakes races have been downgraded as a result. Trainers have relocated overseas or quit.

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This year’s €700,000 Group 2 Italian Derby featured a field of twelve, with just three stables (and two families) represented. There’s no stop to the decline in sight.

I knew the perilous state of Italian racing and had no expectations before visiting Capannelle, just curiosity that needed to be satisfied.

Capannelle is a quick 15-minute journey by train from the centre of Rome.

Some of the training tracks are visible from the train platform. The closest was a small sand path of four metres width, rickety pieces of wood acting at the running rails with the inside rail covered up in sections by long weeds.

It’s a gentle reminder that occupational health and safety doesn’t exist in this part of the world.

The 1km walk along Via delle Capannelle to the racetrack isn’t picturesque. There was plenty of overgrown grass sprouting underneath large graffiti covered retaining walls that enclose the racecourse.

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Finally, I arrived at the racetrack, just over an hour before the first of six races at 3:40pm, the last race scheduled just over three hours later.

The front entrance reminded me of Sandown racecourse in Melbourne, cars dotted around a car park that once again won’t reach capacity.

Walking into the track was easy, it was free entry. The second job was finding a racebook. Eventually, I found the racebook stand, a small hut type structure alongside the mounting yard.

Five elderly men occupied this booth, like a group of rebellious teens, standing slouched or sitting on desks. They clearly weren’t selling any books today at Capannelle.

But then I noticed one of the men clutching a double-sized sheet of A4 paper listing the fields and pen in hand. So I plucked up the courage to ask where I could obtain a copy. He pointed me towards the on-course café.

I thanked the men, excused my haphazard Italian pronunciation by saying I was Australian and walked towards the café.

“Did you hear that? He’s from Australia,” one man said to his four accomplices in Italian only for another to reply, “What’s he doing here?”

A fair question.

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The racetrack is beautiful and relatively neat but there are subtle signs of the impending financial crunch.

Sunburnt green plastic chairs overlook the winning post in the main public grandstand. TV’s around the track are old. Less patronised parts of the course weren’t maintained.

Those decaying facilities didn’t detract from the enthusiasm of on-course punters.

There was plenty of shouting and jeering when the field made their way up the home straight including one race that led to a controversial protest decision.

The third placegetter Il Moro was promoted ahead of runner-up Half Way after being denied a run over the final 200 metres, despite being beaten over a length.

Stewards deliberated for a lengthy period, delaying the following race. I can only imagine how such a decision would be received in Australia!

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And when the racing action is coming from elsewhere, the betting hall underneath the grandstand provided an ideal echo chamber from mid-race cheering.

Punters at Capannelle appeared attune with the concept of wagering on other meetings the same day, in a similar way Australians operate, as focus turned to trotting meetings at Milan and Naples in good numbers.

There were no electronic betting terminals. All bets needed to be verbally placed over the counter with staff that had varying levels of disinterest and approachability.

For the first time I was unsure and nervous at a betting window.

The Italian expression for ‘each-way’ was one thing I’d never been taught through primary and secondary education. Therefore all my wagers were win only or as I described to bemused tellers, “solo per vincere” which crudely translated to “just to win”.

My first bet was a two-year-old maiden named Cecily down Capannelle’s 1000-metre straight. I backed her at 7/1 within the final 10 minutes of betting and she firmed into 3/1 at the jump. Any smugness about backing a tote-tumbler vanished when she finished 13 lengths last.

Four further win bets yielded three minor placings, including a couple at double-figure odds. Limited vocabulary can now be added to another method of losing on the punt.

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As the meeting drew towards a close, I crossed paths with the gentleman who directed me towards grabbing the fields list at the start of the day.

Gentle bilingual small talk ensued and revealed his brother had migrated to Australia for work only to return home in retirement. He insisted Australia was “a beautiful country”.

I attempted to return pleasantries by suggesting that Capannelle racecourse itself was also beautiful. The man wasn’t buying my flattery.

He gesticulated towards the grandstand, described it as old and predicted a bleak future for the racetrack. That man, as anybody with an interest in Italian racing, has legitimate cause for concern.

It would be unfortunate if Rome’s racecourse became another Roman ruin.

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~ Also published in Winning Post newspaper.

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