MILAN (Reuters) - Italy's once high-flying horseracing industry is flagging, with bets shrinking and prime horseflesh leaving, and the sector has turned to the government for a rescue plan.
Once a prestige sport bankrolled by industrialists and status seekers, horserace bets were down 16 percent in the first quarter from a year earlier, bucking an overall upturn in the nearly 50 billion euro Italian betting market.
Stands are often half-empty at such tracks as Milan's San Siro, and Italian course attendance was down 20 percent in the first fourth months of the year, according to industry figures.
Industry executives said Italian horseracing was handicapped by too many tracks, shrinking stables, falling quality of horses and an aging bettor base.
"There are not the big racehorse owners as there were at one time. Twenty or 30 years ago to have a champion racehorse was a status symbol," according to Giovanni Fava, a spokesman for Snai SpA, Italy's top horse race company.
"Now those who want to get involved in sport do so with a soccer team or in Formula One (motor racing)," he said.
One sign of the downturn is a horse such as the ex-Italian trained Gladiatorus.
After a highly successful two-year-old career in Italy, he was bought by Sheikh Mansoor bin Mohammed al Maktoum and left the country to race in the Emirates where he won the $5 million Dubai Duty Free race earlier this year.
Among jockeys who have sought their fortunes elsewhere, second-generation rider Frankie Dettori started in Italy but soon moved on to Britain. He returned this month to win the Derby di Roma, Italy's richest race with a purse of 814,000 euros, on a horse called Mastery.
Former jockey and trainer Angelino Vincis, 75, said the cost of maintaining a competitive stable of 50 to 70 horses was exorbitant. Off-track betting had also cut into track attendance.
"The other thing is that when you have a good horse, offers come from abroad and they go. Bloodstock is going out and does not stay," he said on a sunny spring day at the San Siro track.
Fans scattered by the stands studying racing form and horses were mostly big-bellied older men in casual dress, many of them grey-haired retirees or shift workers.
The half-dozen approached by a Reuters reporter all said they had not placed any bets.
"No, we're not betting today, just visiting," said one middle-aged man who declined to give his name.
Fava, the Snai spokesman, said normal attendance at the 10,000-seat San Siro course was 3,000 to 4,000 for a typical Saturday or Sunday race.
The figure could rise to 7,000 to 8,000 for a big race, such as Milan's Gran Premio meeting, part of the top-tier Group One races, he said.
Many stables are owned by groups of small businessmen who lack the deep pockets needed to maintain a large stable of high-quality horses.
Francesco Aletti Montano, a vice-chairman at UBS AG in Italy and stable owner, said the quality of racing had fallen through lack of investment compared with other European countries.
"For sure, the small businesses with a few horses can no longer succeed. In the Emirates, but also in Great Britain and France, major amounts are invested," he said in an interview with Italy's Libero newspaper.
Italy has more than 40 courses. That's too many, according to Luigi Migliaccio, an expert with Italy's Agipro news agency, which specializes in gambling issues.
"There needs to be a classification of racecourses to make a circuit of better ones (a 'division one') and other more regional ones as in France. In France, they have more resources and the smaller courses have lower costs," he said.
Snai favours promotion of big races with sponsors and the aim of attracting wider TV coverage.
Agriculture Minister Luca Zaia plans measures in the coming weeks to arrest the decline, in part to maintain the quality of Italian horse stocks.
Possible moves include course improvements, more high-quality races and TV coverage, Zaia adviser Armando Branchini said. The measures would be funded by a betting levy and a new tax from slot machines due to raise 160 million euros a year.
Branchini sees 50 percent of resources going on bigger prize money and about 25 percent on courses. The rest would be spent on TV and sporting controls, including anti-doping.
However, Mario Pelucchi, a horseracing expert at Bologna consultancy Nomisma, said there were too many divergent opinions in the sector for a successful relaunch.
"The sector is divided and it is difficult to put the different categories around the table together," he said."
Editing by Dave Thompson.