Italy, a once-proud racing nation, stands on the brink of disaster. Prize-money is tumbling, the bloodstock industry is in free fall, and the country has been given until the end of March by the European Pattern Race Committee to pay up prize-money it still owes or risk being demoted from the list of racing nations permitted to stage internationally recognised Group races. How is all this being felt across the country? What is the mood on the Italian racetracks? Leading Italian racing journalist Franco Raimondi reports in the final installment of our three-part analysis.
The lack of confidence is the biggest problem facing Italian racing – it’s a much bigger danger to the future than the lack of money. Do the thousands who live and work in the Italian racing industry really believe the situation can be improved? Have they enough confidence to keep on going in the meantime?
With the country facing the most dramatic economic crisis since World War II, Minister of Agriculture Nunzia De Girolamo may have thought she was trying to help when she pumped some “positive thinking” into her first racecourse appearance at the Trotting Derby qualifications at Naples in December.
The charming minister, nicknamed Nunzia Giuliva (the Merry Nunzia) by legions of detractors, announced that she fell in love with horses after watching some TV series and cartoons. More seriously, she granted that all the delayed payments would be settled before the end of February and that the government would help the racing industry in 2014.
That promise is still good despite De Girolamo’s resignation on Jan. 26 (after she was caught on tape discussing public contracts – an "ordinary" scandal by Italian standards). The Prime Minister Enrico Letta, is in charge in the interim, and a new minister will be nominated soon. But, in truth, the tangle is nothing to do with whoever is minister and however much he or she knows about racing, it is the bureaucracy, which is a cancer across the entire country.
Alduino and Giuseppe Botti, founders of the once prosperous Botti training and breeding dynasty, wrote an open letter to Giuseppe Castiglione, undersecretary at the Ministry of Agriculture and the man in charge of racing, to convey the issues of delayed payments.
“We have 77 employees, three training centers and a breeding farm,” they wrote. “Our business is struggling because of the delayed payment of prize-money.”
The Bottis have been forced to sell some of their best horses to new owners abroad in the last couple of years. In 2013, Wish Come True and Ancient King (second and third in the Italian Derby) left the stable with Arpinati (second in the G1 Gran Criterium) and many others. At Tattersalls December Sale 2012, Razza Del Velino, the Bottis’ breeding operation, sold Claba Di San Jore, the dam of the G1 winners Awelmarduk, Jakkalberry, and Crackerjack King, for 575,000 guineas.
“We have to sell horses to balance the accounts,” Alduino Botti said. “This is a ground rule in our industry, but this time, with the delayed payments, we have no choice.”
Nowadays, thinking positive is tough for Italian professionals. Umberto Rispoli and Cristian Demuro, two of the last three champion jockeys, have moved to France. Others, such as Nicola Pinna and Paolo Sirigu, are working abroad on regular basis. Dario Vargiu, who snatched his third jockeys’ championship in 2013, keeps hanging on.
“I thought about a move some years ago,” Vargiu said. “Now I have my family, two children. I like my profession and my country. I will ride in Italy until somebody will tell us: racing is finished.
“We had a very difficult moment in 2013, the payments of our prize share were delayed more than six months,” he continued. “That was rough. In March, I got a one-month licence to ride in Japan because I needed money.”
The delayed payments and the drop in prize-money have pummeled the small stables - and an entire way of life.
The last 15 years or so have seen the emergence of “professional owners” in Italy, usually small trainers or even stable staff who buy horses cheaply and run them looking for a minimal profit at the end of the season. A moderate handicapper could earn €20,000 ($27,300) and it would cost no more than €8,000 ($10,900) plus the owner’s time and effort. If each horse provided around €12,000 ($16,400) profit – multiplied for four or five animals – this would generate a decent salary to a “professional owner." With the new prize-money level, profiting from such speculation is barely possible now.
Salvatore Limata and his Razza Dell’Olmo stable, winner of the champion owner title from 2002 to 2011, built a profitable system in that period by buying yearlings at moderate prices to be trained in a private facility by the smart Riccardo Menichetti. The stable's cavalry charged at every track in the country. The horses were asked to run frequently, even more than 30 times each season. Razza Dell’Olmo reached a milestone in 2006, becoming the first Italian owner to earn more than €2 million ($2.7 million) when Dionisia landed the G1 Italian Oaks. They bested their own record in 2009, when 161 individual runners recorded 251 wins in 2,032 starts, collecting €2,546,613 ($3.5 million).
But Razza Dell’Olmo’s policy had to change in 2012, when the country’s prize-money was cut from €54.5 million ($74.3 million) to €37.4 million ($51 million). The individual runners dropped from 155 in the previous year to 107 and went down again to 74 in 2013.
The dream of a big stable that is able to balance the books at the end of the year was swept away by the cut in prize-money. Hundreds of horses became no longer profitable for both big and small owners.
A kind of garage sale began in 2012, when Libya restarted its racing and breeding industry. In two years, more than 300 horses were purchased by Libyan owners and breeders for cheap prices in Italy. The new clients were welcomed in Italy. They cleaned out the big stables, buying low-level performers, third-choice sires, and a lot of race mares as breeding prospects.
The Italian breeding industry suffered too. The number of foals registered dropped in five years from 2,150 to around 1,000, and the 2013 crop is expected to decrease again. Another dream is over. Breeding is finding another way, reverting from industry to high-level amateurism.
“The top tier of the Italian breeding is still at the same level of quality of a few years ago, but the numbers have decreased,” said Isabella Bezzera, president of Italian breeder’s group Associazione Nazionale Allevatori Cavalli (ANAC). “We have to handle a very difficult moment and the passion for breeding will help us to stand up.”
The Italian breeding and racing industry – sustained at the time by huge support from the Ministry of Agriculture and attractive prize-money - produced in the last dozen of years true champions such as Falbrav, Electrocutionist, Rakti, Ramonti, and many others. The big question now is simple: Will Italian racing be able to stay at the top level with no subsidies, reduced prize-money, and fewer horses?
A lot of passion and confidence will be required.