Trotting in Rome: Farewell to a sporting way of life

Driver Giuseppe Pietro Masio on horse Hodvig Lavec

A relaxation of gambling rules means that Italians are betting more than ever - but they are betting less on trotting, a sport with echoes of the chariot races of ancient Rome. As a result, one of the city's most venerable sporting institutions is closing.

Sometimes journeys across Rome take me past the Circus Maximus - what was in ancient times, the city's chariot racing arena.

All its stone seating is long gone. Today its grandstands are just grassy slopes that sweep down to a gravel track.

It's not much more than a bit of green space in the heart of the city, a place to kick a ball about, or for joggers to go wheezing through the summer heat.

But just imagine what it must have been like on race days back in the 1st Century AD.

The chariots were summoned to the start by trumpets and then they would be off, pounding hooves, whirring wheels, rising dust, the crowd roaring and drivers straining at the reins as they lashed their horses into dangerous turns.

Image caption The Circus Maximus once reverberated to the sound of chariots

The only place where you might have found just the faintest echo of all that in Rome nowadays is out on the edge of the city, at place called Tor di Valle.

It was a harness racing, or trotting, track, a place of pace and grace where horses would go striding at speed round a huge oval circuit, trailing behind them the flimsiest little carriages - modern chariots - just big enough for a driver to perch on, and crack a whip.

And out at the track they would tell you proudly that their sport has its roots even further back than those Roman race days at the Circus Maximus.

Legend has it the origins lay with the charioteers of ancient Greece.

For decades, trotting flourished at Tor di Valle.

Horses would be flown in from abroad for the biggest races and for the most important there would be a million euros in prize money. But no more.

I came to Tor di Valle on what was supposed to be the day of its last race.

The track was closing. It has been overwhelmed by the economic troubles that have brought much of horse racing in Italy to its knees.

Betting is the sport's life blood, and right now Italians are actually gambling more than ever.

But the way they bet has been transformed over the past decade.

A liberalisation of gaming regulations has allowed punters to put money on sports and lotteries of all kinds, and the cash has just drained away from the horses.

At Tor di Valle they say that their sector of the economy has been disastrously neglected by the government.

And so that day at the track, I was watching a whole sporting way of life come to an end.

In the utter gloom, even the very last races had to be cancelled. The deeply disgruntled workforce did not have the heart to stage them.

Of course trotting was far from the biggest game in town.

It had endured years of decline. But to the drivers and stable lads, the track was everything.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionThe sport of trotting, which echoes Rome's chariot races, is seriously endangered

A man called Fabio sat in the grandstand, surrounded by empty seats.

He had worked at Tor di Valle for more than 20 years, but now, like dozens of others, he was bracing himself for unemployment.

He had known the track since he was a boy and he said it was like of a world of its own.

In that grandstand he had watched people gamble away everything they had, and then carry on gambling and he had seen others get rich.

I met a trainer called Roberto walking a horse down a road to the stables. He was a big strong man in his 50s, but his voice broke as he talked of how his life had been steeped in the track.

Horses, he said, had been his passion. He and his father, and his grandfather before him, had trained some fine ones.

And there was a time when - if you could win a derby - there was enough prize money for a trainer to sort out a good part of his life.

But now he said it was a struggle to feed the horses.

The best of them, the fastest of them, will survive the closure of Tor di Valle. They'll be sent to other places to race.

But some of the animals may have to be put down. Better that, perhaps, than let them end up in the harsh world of the illegal trotting scene run by mafiosi on the country roads in the south of Italy.

For an hour or two, the horses were brought out to be exercised.

They went fizzing round the track, snorting and stamping, harnesses rattling, drivers shouting.

For a while there were echoes of better days at Tor di Valle.

But eventually the horses were led back to their stalls, steam rising from their backs in the soft, wintry sunlight.

And gradually a silence, and a deep sadness, settled on the lanes between the stables.

How to listen to From Our Own Correspondent:

BBC Radio 4: Saturdays at 11:30 and some Thursdays at 11:00

Listen online or download the podcast.

BBC World Service: Short editions Monday-Friday - see World Service programme schedule.