The cruel spectacle of illegal horse races in Italy

  • by: Fabio Borando
  • recipient: To the Italian Prime Minister, to the Health Minister, to the Tourism Minister, to the Undersecretary to the Health Ministry, Thank You!

Day is breaking in Sicily and the next illegal horse race is about to begin.

The street is blocked, the sidewalks crowded with noisy men holding fists full of money. At the far end of the road, two visibly agitated horses stomp nervously, their hooves sliding on the asphalt. A few men armed with serious gazes and long sticks try to keep them under control.

"They start at dawn, or sometimes at night, by the light of car headlights," said Giuseppe, a 29-year-old jockey from the city of Agrigento who doesn't want his real name used. Although races may vary in location and the number of horses participating, they all come down to two things: illegal betting and animal abuse.

The betting is becoming big business for criminal organizations: Illegal horse racing is estimated to generate as much as $1.5-billion (U.S.) a year in southern Italy, where the influence of the Mafia is strong.

Those familiar with the races say the horses often run to the point of exhaustion, and that the losers are often killed, some butchered and sold as meat on the black market. In some parts of Sicily, the losing horse is stoned to death; such a horse was found dead on a beach near the city of Catania a few months ago, presumably after losing.

Illegal horse races have always existed in Sicily, tolerated by citizens because they were viewed as folklore. Occasionally, races were even organized during regional holidays. More rarely, they were authorized by city hall.

Today, the races are clandestine. City streets are closed off selectively, fans are informed about a race's time and whereabouts. Residents who live along the makeshift urban courses are threatened with violence if they leave their houses during the event.

Police estimate that about 300 illegal races are run every year, and the number is growing. Only 10 are known to have been stopped this year.

"The streets are closed off from one end to the other. No one can get through," Giuseppe said. "The course is about 400 metres, sometimes 500. They look for streets on an incline so that the horses don't slip. But it's asphalt all the same, and every once in a while a mess happens - the horses slip on the stuff ... asphalt isn't good for horses. It damages their tendons. And in order to ease the pain, [the organizers]drug them. But sometimes a horse takes a bad fall and breaks some bones. Then it is shot."

Animal-rights organizations in Italy have tried to make waves about the practice. The Anti-Vivisection League recently released a report entitled Zoomafia 2007, underlining how criminal organizations have been focusing more and more on illegal horse racing, "an industry truly based on violence and exploitation."

Several weeks ago, in a separate report, ENPA, the national animal protection organization, noted that in the province of Catania in western Sicily, illegal horse races are being held weekly. The report, called EcoMafia 2007, calls clandestine horse racing an epidemic that is affecting not only Sicily, but Campania, and the Puglia region as well.

Ciro Troiano, 42, is head of Zoomafia, a department of the Anti-Vivisection League that reports on and works to prevent cruelty to animals by the Mafia. "For every horse, up to 7,000 euros [just over $10,000]may be bet," he said. "So the profit of every race runs at about 50,000 euros."

When police do manage to stop races, as they did recently in the city of Syracuse, they seize horses and money and send some of those responsible to prison. But such actions are rare.

Author Gery Palazzotto, 44, wrote a book on clandestine horse racing in Sicily entitled Fotofinish. Mr. Palazzotto says the "races are quick events that are born at dawn on any particular day and don't leave any traces

"Once in a while, the police are able to film or block them, thanks to a tip from the public. But it's not enough. In Sicily, it is certainly not [the races]that are the emergency, but they are part of a system that makes up the true Sicilian emergency: the Mafia. And by now it is absolutely clear that Cosa Nostra is up to its neck in these races."




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