A Day At The Races – Italian Style

Magic Lips marries a family visit with a day of pleasure - and another, and another...

“Do they have racing in Italy?” is a question I have been asked more than once.  I feel like saying that the humming noise you can hear in the background is the sound of Federico Tesio, arguably the greatest thoroughbred breeder of all time, spinning in his grave.  Instead, I usually respond with, “yes, it’s where Frankie started his career.”  A more reasonable question might be, “do they have racing in Slovakia?”  The answer again is, yes they do – but more of that later.

So when my latest vacation to the motherland coincided with the running of the Gr1 Gran Premio del Jockey Club in Milan I decided to forsake the splendours of the Riviera for one day and experience racing the Italian way.   Armed with a map of Milan’s Metro system and a rough idea courtesy of Google Earth as to whereabouts the racecourse is located, I hopped on a train for the two-and-a-half hour ride to Italy’s wealthiest (if far from most beautiful) city.  Milan has its tourist attractions, not least of which is Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” as immortalised all over again by Dan Brown, but it doesn’t have history oozing out of every pore like, say, Rome or Venice.

This is the Johannesburg  (sans the mine dumps) of Italy, a city where business is king and where you leave as soon as you have finished whatever it is you went there to do.  Milan sits plum in the middle of probably the flattest and most featureless part of the country.  They could have put it 50 kilometres in any direction and you would never know the difference.  The train passes through miles of farmland and past some of what have to be the dullest towns in Italy.  This is Lombardy, not Tuscany.  Nobody makes movies about people falling in love with and buying rundown old villas in Lombardy.  You are as likely to spend your life dreaming of running a bed-and-breakfast in Kroonstad or Sasolburg.

Then there was the weather.  The inescapable thought began to form many miles from Milan’s main railway station that South African jockeys wouldn’t even bother getting out of bed on a day like this.  The city had apparently been drenched overnight and the closer to Milan we got, the duller the weather and the bigger the standing puddles in the fields and farm roads became.  The rain was still falling in fits and starts, all of which was enough to turn the going from good on Saturday to “very heavy” twenty-fours later.  None of this bollocks about meetings being cancelled after half- an- inch of rain at the end of a five month drought, though.  This is not the bloody Vaal, chum.

San Siro racecourse sits right across the road from the trotting track (yawn!) and famous football stadium of the same name.   Situated two short Metro rides from the city centre, this is something of a green zone out in the suburbs and a comfortable (if soggy) walk of about one kilometre from the nearest Metro stop.   Any lingering doubts about whether the racing is still on are soon allayed by the arrival of several small gentlemen towing suitcases on wheels.  You don’t have to know who’s who to recognise the unmistakable profile of a jockey and if they are pitching up for work then clearly everything is  green for go.

So, after the essential Italian ritual of lunch in a conveniently located restaurant a couple of hundred metres down the track from the main gate, it’s time to head for the races – sodden shoes, soggy socks, and all.  The admission fees strike me as being a tad outmoded to say the least.  Men – 5 euros.  Women – 1 euro.  Italy loves women (although not enough to let them in for free) and Milan is a city which owes a large part of its fame and fortune to the fairer sex.  If Germaine Greer and her bra-burning sisters don’t like this blatant inequality, nobody around here gives a hoot.

This is a big day and the racecourse has attracted a host of food vendors, who set up stands selling all manners of hams, sausages, and cheeses (whole wheels of them).  Only in Italy can you go to the races and come home with half a smoked pig and a ton of Parmesan.

The peace of San Siro is shattered about 45 minutes before the first race by the arrival of a familiar voice joking and shouting and then even bursting into song as he strides into the restricted area.  This is called “making an entrance.”  One doesn’t even need to turn one’s head to locate the source of this racket to know that it heralds the arrival on course of the man whose name appears in the official programme as Dettori Lanfranco.  He’s here to ride Cavalryman in the big event, a horse who finished third in Sea The Stars’ 2009 Arc but whose form since has disappointed.  Only eighth in the Arc this time around, Cavalryman was supplemented to the Gran Premio at considerable expense and contests the race in place of stable companion Campanologist, who is sent to Australia for the Melbourne Cup instead.

On top of the big Feature there are also two Gr 3 races on the card for what is San Siro’s last really big meeting of the year.  The French are too busy rioting in the streets (again) to send any runners over, but there are representatives from Britain, Germany and even (as you might have guessed), Slovakia.   The sole Slovakian representative is due to contest a Gr 3 for two-year-old fillies and arrives in town unbeaten from three starts.  Unfortunately for all concerned, she returns to the splendid (?) city of Bratislava still unbeaten from three starts after she flatly refuses to enter the starting stalls and is eventually scratched.  Her connections are left with nothing to show for their foray into the previously decadent and forbidden West except a hole in the wallet.   Her jockey came within millimetres of being head-butted right on the nose by his recalcitrant mount and inadvertently taught the San Siro starting stalls team some new swear words in a foreign language with which to impress their mates.  (“Hey Marco, do you know what the Slovakian for ‘you miserable stupid f*****g mad b*tch’ is? I do!”)

This Gr 3 race is eventually won by a lovely daughter of Diktat named Adamantina, who ploughs through the sodden ground to win the 1600m contest with considerable aplomb.  She looked a picture in the pre-race parade and would not be out of place in the parade ring at Newmarket or Longchamp in 2011.  She really is a smashing specimen of a filly, and there is a South African connection here as she is out of a mare by the late Wolfhound.  Her trainer Vittorio Caruso, perhaps aware that Saeed bin Surror is on course to saddle Cavalryman and is doubtless always on the lookout for new stars to carry the all-blue Godolphin silks, is quoted as saying that he wouldn’t sell this filly for “a million euros.”   He said the same thing about the Shamardal colt Duel who won the opening race on the card for two-year-olds and this one went on to win a Gr 3 in Rome a fortnight later.

The first day of November saw a Caruso-trained  two-year-old colt named Blu Constellation win a Gr 2 race in France by six lengths.  The glory days of Ribot and Nearco may be behind them, but the Italians still have some high-calibre bullets in their racing armoury and don’t say you weren’t warned if Blu Constellation  (a son of Orpen) turns into a big player on the international sprinting scene in 2011.

I soon discover that the starting times published for Italian race meetings are a rough guide at best and that the loading procedure for most races seems to take an eternity.  They even make Port Elizabeth look like a bastion of punctuality, but I guess that if anybody says anything nasty about the starting stalls team the buggers will promptly go on strike.    They like to say that Mussolini made the trains run on time, but Il Duce was plainly not a racing man.  Still, San Siro is fitted with floodlights so chill out, man.  What’s the hurry?

Most of the sizeable crowd heads to the parade ring to see the nine runners engaged in the Gran Premio, a race which Frankie Dettori has won five times already and which our own Muis Roberts won aboard Lando in 1994.    It’s hard to see much through the inevitable forest of umbrellas which in Italy always shoots up immediately if a single raindrop lands within a radius of about two hundred metres.   It’s easy for the unwary to have an eye gouged out, but being taller than most of the locals does have its benefit.  I can at least see the horses, sort of.

Those spectators unfortunate enough to choose the racecourse side of the paddock to view the runners are endlessly regaled by the local version of that universal racing phenomenon – the loud-mouthed know-it-all.  This particular gentleman, kitted out in a brown jacket and wielding a green umbrella like a sabre, simply does not shut up from the beginning of the day to the end.  He carries on at the top of his voice like a mad televangelist, not caring a jot whether he has an audience or whether everybody runs away through the puddles in all directions.  He has an opinion about everything remotely related to the racing of horses and reckons the whole world is entitled to hear it, even the bloke driving past the racecourse gates – you know the type, I’m sure.

Aside from Cavalryman (who is seeking to give Godolphin their 100th Gr 1 winner) there is the much travelled German veteran Quijano, already twice a Gr 1 winner in Milan and a gelding who has visited Dubai almost as often as Paul Lafferty.  The British contingent also includes Rainbow Peak, who has never finished out of the first two in his life and who has finished in front of the ex-South African Kings Gambit twice this year.   Cavalryman looks a brief threat in the straight but runs out of gas to eventually finish a distant third in a strung-out field, leaving the boys-in-blue to wait another day for their Gr 1 century.   Quijano never gets going in the mud and trails in a long way adrift.  Cima de Triomphe, who won the Italian Derby in 2008 when the race last carried Gr 1 status, flounders over the line in last place.  The experience does the handsome grey son of Galileo no lasting harm though.  He returns to San Siro six days later and wins a minor race with consummate ease.

The Gran Premio eventually turns into a two-horse war between the Italian-trained Lord Chaparal, who tries to make every inch of the running over 2400m in the mud but who is eventually and cruelly denied victory in the dying strides by the UK raider Rainbow Peak.  The local media are still crying about this near-miss a week later, but Rainbow Peak runs the race of his life under a great ride from Neil Callan and takes home the more than 114 000 euro first prize after an agonisingly long photo finish.  A four-year-old gelding by Hernando, Rainbow Peak is owned by Peter Savill, who is on course to (eventually) greet the gelding who has just become Savill’s first home-bred Gr 1 winner.

Trainer Michael Jarvis is not on course and is represented by that European phenomenon called the travelling head lad (who is sometimes in fact a lass).  Jarvis is a master at placing horses in the right races around Europe and also trains Pressing, who has won a very rich event in Turkey three years in a row.  The Old Continent is full of a variety of races that can amply reward connections who know how to fit round pegs into round holes and Jarvis is as good as any at it.  Rainbow Peak could be back in Italy for a Gr 1 in Rome before 2010 is over, where Lord Chaparal will no doubt be hoping to wreak his revenge.  For now, the score is Britain 1 – Italy 0.

The local press just has to swallow its pride and one newspaperman bravely interviews Savill and Callan in somewhat halting English, jotting things down on a notepad the old fashioned way.  To their eternal credit, both owner and jockey answer his questions without sounding like they are talking to an idiot or a child.  They understand that the press has a role to play and would doubtless have been much more put-out if nobody had asked them anything.   Some (although by no means all) of our racing folk treat the media much as they would an irritating mosquito.    Or maybe it’s because they were being asked the right questions and not stupid ones, like “are you happy you won?”  “Er no, we would have preferred to finish a short head second.”

Eventually the days wends to a close, 20 minutes behind schedule and with the lights turned on against the gloom of a Milan evening that was more wintry than autumnal.  It’s time to slosh my way back to the Metro station.  As I leave, Brown Jacket/Green Umbrella is still going at it hammer-and-tongs, although a little hoarser now.  He doesn’t seem to notice that there is nobody left hanging about to listen.  He should go into politics.

The whole experience was so much fun that I returned to San Siro three times before my fortnight’s holiday was up.  The man with the brown jacket and the foghorn voice was there every single time. Why was I not surprised?

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