Illicit races are a multi-million pound business for the Italian mafia, posing a serious threat to horse welfare

Drugged horses run at breakneck speed across a busy Sicilian town. An illegal roadblock, enforced by local thugs, keeps cars and pedestrians clear of the stretch of road where the ‘race’ is being run.

Similar races take place every weekend in spring and summer and range from simple speed tests to sophisticated tournaments. They are organised by the Italian mafia, known locally as the Cosa Nostra [our thing].

As the pickings from the extortion and ‘protection’ rackets dwindle, Cosa Nostra is turning to horseracing to bump up its profits. Zoomafia – the exploitation of animals for criminal activities – is now worth an estimated £2,000 million a year, of which £670 million comes from gambling at the illicit races.

“Horses play an important role in the mafia culture,” says Ciro Troiano, author of the Zoomafia 2002 report and leader of the Anti-Vivisection League’s Zoomafia taskforce. “From Lucky Luciano to Salvatore Riina, mafia bosses have always owned horses, because they are a symbol of power.”

Horses die following illicit races

Animal welfare, however, is not high in Cosa Nostra‘s priorities. Horses are allegedly drugged with cocaine and other banned substances to make them run faster. “One of the most common ways of doping the horses consists of placing a mix of VapoRub, camphor and cocaine under their nostrils.”

The repercussions can be lethal: when the effect of the drugs wear off, the horses are left in terrible pain. Many die of heart attacks. “It is quite common to hear of horses found dead at the roadside,” says Ciro. “Often they have died of heart attack resulting from drug abuse.”

When not running, some horses are kept in appalling conditions. “In the town of Catania, in Sicily, they are often locked up in garages or damp lower ground floor rooms,” says Ciro. “If they die of mistreatment, their meat may be sold at the butcher’s. It is not a coincidence that Catania has the largest number of butchers selling equine meat in Italy.”

Mafia money-making schemes

The mafia is also behind many horse thefts. Pregnant mares have been stolen from top Italian stables for their foals, while the average racehorse is stolen for its identity. His head is cut off so his microchip identity tag can be removed. This is then inserted in to a successful thoroughbred, which runs in a legal race – under the identity of the dead horse – and wins. The mafia bosses make massive gains by heavily betting on the unexpected winner.

Earlier this month, the Italian police established a new investigative body, the Police for Games and Betting, which is responsible for fighting crime relating to games and gambling – including illicit races.

“There is big money to be made and this attracts the attention of organised crime,” says officer Stefano Carvelli. “The mafia is likely to operate in three ways: rigging legal races, organising illicit races, and illegal gambling. The first two activities pose serious threats to the horses’ welfare.”

Changes to Italian law needed

The police keep an eye on mob families that are known for having an interest in horseracing. However, the Anti-Vivisection League thinks that not enough is being done to eradicate this racket.

“Numerous offences are connected to illegal races – from drug-dealing to illicit gambling, from animal mistreatment to theft – but the perpetrators are hardly ever caught and, even when they are, sentences are minimal,” saysCiro.

“Extraordinary as it may sound, organising and running an illegal race is not a crime under Italian law. The only applicable offence is ‘dangerously driving animals across a public street’, which carries a small fine.”

Stefano disagrees, saying: “Although a single police raid may not result in jailing race organisers, it is part of a wider investigative effort which aims to prove that the mafia runs illicit races.”

If the charge of mafia association were proved, race organisers would face extremely tough sentences. But, according to the League Anti-Vivisection, the police are often unable to prove the mafia involvement in the races, because running an illicit race is not an offence.

The Anti-Vivisection League is lobbying to push a bill through, which would turn illicit races in an offence punishable with up to five years of jail. Until this is achieved, horses will continue to suffer at the hands of the mafia.

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