Horse racing has been suspended at the Palermo racetrack after Italian police investigating mafia activity discovered illegal gambling and evidence Cosa Nostra bosses were rigging races.

The order, from the head of the Palermo prefecture, Antonella De Miro, followed the arrests earlier in December of 25 people linked to the clans of Resuttana-San Lorenzo that revealed the extent of mafia involvement in horse racing.

“We are in the presence of a system of conditioning and mafia infiltration,” De Miro said. The 15,000-capacity race course, with stables that can host 400 horses, is now empty, with races suspended until further notice and the management company stripped of its tender.

The arrests have revealed the Sicilian mafia to be as involved in on-track racing as it is in illegal street races, where drugged and ill-treated horses are forced to run to exhaustion as thousands of euros are bet on the winners.

One of the most frequent race-goers was the boss of the Resuttana clan, Giovanni Niosi, who owned some of the horses that raced at the Ippodromo La Favorita, built in 1953 in Palermo’s largest urban park, and loved to surround himself with jockeys who often asked for favours and money.

“But there were also jockeys who did not bow to the demands of the boss who ordered them to lose,” Vito Galatolo, a former mobster from Palermo turned supergrass, told the investigators. “When that happened, the clan goons kicked and punched them, until they were forced to surrender.”

Children look after a horse in the Ballarò neighbourhood of Palermo

Children look after a horse in the Ballarò neighbourhood of Palermo. Usually horses are raised in empty old houses and used for street racing managed by mafia. Photograph: Francesco Bellina

Ciro Troiano, head of the National Animal Guardians Service at LAV, one of Italy’s major animal rights organisations, said it came as no surprise that the mafia was involved in horse racing.

“The Sicilian, Neapolitan and Calabrian mafias have had their hands on the management of illegal bets for decades. And this, unfortunately, does not only happen in the races within the official racetracks, but also in those that the mobsters organise daily on the asphalt.’’

According to the organisation’s most recent report, police have confiscated 1,275 horses running in illegal races since 1998 and reported 3,402 people to the judicial authorities. The most recent police operation was on 14 November, when authorities arrested five men who had organised an illegal race in the suburbs of Messina, on Sicily’s east coast.

Races in Palermo, the capital, are traditionally held at dawn on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays when the streets are quiet. Dozens of men riding scooters follow the horses along the 2km course and videos of the races are uploaded to YouTube, with the winners often celebrated in song.

Accidents are frequent and there are numerous cases of horse carcasses being found on the streets of Palermo. In one case from 2012, a horse was found dead in front of the entrance of the university after having crashed into a pole during a race a few hours before.

Injured animals are slaughtered and their flesh sold in districts of Palermo and Catania where dishes made from horsemeat are a speciality, but the drugs injected into them before the race pose health risks to consumers.

Injured champions may also be used for breeding, said the chief prosecutor of Syracuse, Paolo Giordano, who has led several investigations into illegal horse races in Sicily. “The semen of illegal racing horse champions, containing highly coveted DNA, is sold at staggering prices.”

Police in Naples in the 1990s seized an entire illegal racetrack with more than 40 horses from the Camorra boss Lorenzo Nuvoletta. The boss had also built an artificial insemination laboratory for breeding specimens that he then sold illegally.

But not everyone can afford a racetrack, and horses used for illegal racing usually stay in garages or buildings in the city centre. These are dark, illegal stalls without drainage systems, where animals are kept tied to the walls. According to the authorities, there are more than 300 illegal stables hidden around Palermo.

Giordano said the control of horse racing – and prize horses – remained important to the mafia. “We must not think of the illegal races solely as a form of business,” Giordano said. “It’s not just a question of money for bosses. Like the battles between gladiators, in the Colosseum, the clandestine horse races have a ‘political’ value, a form of entertainment put on by the mafia for the inhabitants of the neighbourhoods under their control.”


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