UNIRE, the organisation responsible for horseracing in Italy which was founded in 1932, changed its name to ASSI (Agenzia per lo Sviluppo del Settore Ippico, Agency for the Development of the Horseracing Sector) in the middle of 2011. It was not meant to merely be a rebranding exercise.
Apart from the change of name the agency aims to change the way it operates, become more efficient and stop wasting money so to be able to counter the dramatic decline of the Italian horseracing sector.
Horseracing in Italy faces a real threat to its existence and it not clear if the newly named agency is fit for purpose. Until 1999 UNIRE was a self-financing institution and all its funds derived from bets on national horseracing. From 2000, however, UNIRE required additional funds to be able to sustain the same level of services and the government stepped in to help because horseracing provides jobs to more than 48,000 people in Italy. By 2008 wagers on horse races had declined by 10% and consequently so did the prize money, which is vital for those involved in the industry.
Then the financial crisis struck and has battered the Italian economy. Under cost cutting programs enacted by the Italian government, ASSI’s 2012 budget was cut by 42%.
Most Italian hippodromes were already on the edge of collapse even before the cuts were put in place, and are finding it increasingly difficult to pay their employees. Some have even resorted to using illegal labour just to keep afloat.
Who is to the blame for this crisis? UNIRE’s management certainly have to shoulder the bulk of the blame. But the Italian political class is also culpable. UNIRE’s management, as a quasi-public body, is appointed by the government. Those who have been selected in the last 12 years have been put in place mainly due to their political contacts more than their ability to turn the situation around.
The problems of the sector have been known for a very long time. The liberalisation of the Italian gambling market was followed by a boom in gambling activities and products, making the market very competitive but also innovative.
The new Italian government will soon issue a decree lowering the gambling tax on horserace betting and allow the sector to diversify betting products, but the cuts will stay. ASSI will become a much smaller and efficient agency so more money will be diverted to prize money.
For many involved in horseracing the fear is that these measures are too little too late. 2012 might prove them right.