“Italy is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Had LP Hartley been writing about racing in Italy instead of a long hot Norfolk summer at the turn of the 20th Century, he might well have begun his book with those words. It’s certainly hard to imagine the level of protest about racing’s finances that took place at the beginning of the month in Rome occurring in Newmarket or Cheltenham.
In a co-ordinated effort to highlight the parlous financial state the sport is in, mounted protestors used hay and straw bales to block roads all round the country’s major cities. The major ring road around Rome suffered tailbacks of 15km. The timing was deliberate, as a general election takes place later this month, and further protests are likely in the run up to this.
The problems are long standing. Last year saw an unscheduled winter break of six weeks, in which there no racing took place from the beginning of January until mid February. The Italian Government promised to stump up €35m to cover outstanding prize money payments, including percentages to jockeys, some of which are now nine months overdue.
Naples and Milan were the main sites of protest action alongside Rome, with protests timed to coincide with the Serie A football matches. The action at the San Siro stadium received major television coverage, although in truth the real focus of their attention was Mario Balotelli’s debut match for AC Milan. His two goals, gaining his new club a win, dominated all the evening sports programmes.
Another protest at the San Siro last Sunday threatened to delay the start of Inter’s game until the intervention of the team’s manager Andrea Stramaccioni. He must have had some idea that some action was planned, as when the coach was held up by protestors he hopped out wearing a t shirt displaying the words “Save The Racing.” This led to spontaneous applause and a clear passage for the team bus.
It’s a far cry from here, where the most aggressive action on racing’s finances appears to be a letter from the Horsemen’s Group to the British Horseracing Authority. How very British.