Commentary

All too familiar

Updated: July 9, 2008, 12:44 PM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

At first glance, Caprilli Racecourse seems to offer the perfect escape for any American racing fan grown jaded or a bit beaten down by our game's current woes. It's a placid little seaside track in Livorno, Italy that may not offer the best racing but compensates for its shortcomings with its quaintness, its history (it's more than 100 years old) and its atmosphere. Last Thursday's crowd was on the small side, but there were hundreds of young people in attendance, who were, no doubt, attracted by the late post 8:50 p.m.), and everyone seemed to be having a good time. I was among them.

A mini-Del Mar of sorts, Caprilli would appear to be the type of racetrack that should be thriving, but dig a little deeper and you'll find a place being dragged down by the myriad problems facing Italian racing, many of them all too familiar to American fans.

The Italians like to gamble. With recent changes liberalizing Italian gaming regulation, it is estimated that about $91 billion will be wagered in the country annually by the year 2010. The problem is, too many Italian gamblers are choosing to bet on something other than horse racing.

Not surprisingly, the most popular sport to bet on in Italy is soccer. When Rupert Murdoch's Sky Channel expanded into Italy in 2003, Italian television viewers were, for the first time, presented with the opportunity to view dozens of soccer matches throughout Europe each week. At the same time, Italian horse racing was receiving scant television time. The betting dollars began to flow away from racing and toward televised soccer matches.

"Racing is not shown much on television here," said Italian racing journalist Giorgio Barsotti. "We now have a whole new generation growing up with a lot of opportunities to watch football on television and bet on it. These people have no knowledge of racing or what is going on in racing."

New fans aren't coming to the sport and old ones are being driven out. The takeout in Italy is exorbitant, as much as 40 percent on the trio, which is the Italian version of our trifecta. According to Barsotti, it wasn't always this way, but Italian racing regulators have decided to allow major increases in the takeout rate over the years.

Too many gamblers are going broke, which has created smaller betting pools. With smaller betting pools, it's hard to make a large bet. Anyone wanting to make a big wager on a horse will drive the horse's price down to unacceptable levels. That has caused big bettors to flee the game, which makes the pools smaller yet. It's an unending cycle.

Even slot machines aren't helping. Slot machines are permitted inside the on-course betting shops, where fans can bet on simulcast races from around the country, including numerous harness tracks. On this Thursday night at Caprilli, only a handful of bored players bothered with the slots, which can only mean that Italian gamblers have a lot more sense than American gamblers. Not that any of this matters. None of the profits from the slots go back into racing.

Like their American counterparts, Italian newspapers have taken notice. Coverage of Italian racing is now nearly impossible to find. Only the major Group I races will get any mention in the major dailies.

It's not clear what the solutions are or, even, if there are any solutions. Meanwhile, Italian racing does what it can to move forward, fighting for relevancy and its share of the betting market. Over here, that's something we understand.

Somethings are universal
Another thing Italian racing apparently shares with America racing is incompetent stewards. My Italian gambling experience was a short-lived and miserable one.

After placing one losing bet on a live race from Livorno, I turned my attention to a simulcast race from Milan. A friend of a friend actually had a tip on a first time starter. Because tipped horses never win, I immediately threw that horse out and started to look for someone else to bet on. I noticed that the 9 horse was getting hammered, going down every flash.

Rushing to the one window I could find where the clerk spoke more than four words of English, I got down a small bet on the horse. When he galloped to an easy win, I felt like the smartest horseplayer in all of Italy. I had clearly bet on the best horse.

Somehow, the stewards didn't see it that way. The "nove" did bear out, but he was well clear of the rest of the field and never came close to bothering another horse. Nonetheless, he was taken down.

I had come more than 4,000 miles to fall victim to worst DQ I have ever seen. Disgusted, I never made another bet the rest of the night, which, probably, saved me money. I guess it's the same everywhere -- this is a very tough game.

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at wnfinley@aol.com.

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com