Horse Racing: Markopoulo Continues to Fly the Flag for Greek Racing
Watching and wagering on horse racing remains an incredibly popular pastime across Europe and there are a number of standout contests which regularly attract significant audiences each and every year.
Punters regularly enjoy following the progress of their selections trackside and the sport also attracts huge TV audiences - but there are a host of countries which currently arguably have a monopoly when it comes to the sport of kings. The Greek racing scene has suffered a fair few setbacks over the past couple of decades. With just one remaining racecourse in the country, interest has unsurprisingly dwindled. However, the excellent facilities and high-quality racing staged at Markopoulo does point towards a brighter future for the sport.
Source: Fin Powrie via Twitter
The origins of horse racing can be traced back to Ancient Greece but it was the 1950s which saw the sport enjoy a powerful resurgence. It became a popular social activity during this decade with the Delta of Faliro in Piraeus hosting regular meetings and providing high-quality entertainment for the Greek population. In the build-up to the 2004 Olympics, a new racetrack was built close to Athens airport and racing was subsequently transferred. Remnants of the old racetrack are still in existence although a new culture park has since replaced this unused sporting venue.
Markopoulo Racetrack is considered to be one of the most impressive sporting structures in Europe and can accomodate 6,500 spectators at any given time. It can also boast 1,600 stalls and a veterinarian clinic. The venue hosts regular race days with the Greek Derby being the standout event of the year. The three-year-old classic continues to attract interest throughout Europe.
Authorities are believed to be keen to increase field sizes over the next five years.
Some UK and Ireland-based trainers have recently enjoyed success at Markopoulo with Marco Botti clocking up seven winners in 2018 while in his final season as a trainer, Luca Cumani also enjoyed some success in Athens. Many of the horses who are entered into races such as the Listed Winter Challenge are UK or Irish-bred including the 2018 winner Havildar. The three-race series has been hailed as a triumph for the sport and it is hoped that they can attract a greater number of overseas representatives for future installments.
Odysseas Christoforou, second vice president of the Hellas Horse Races SA described the day as "a great success" which has provided solid foundations to build upon over the next couple of years. Another ex-Cumani trained horse, Medicean Dream, was also victorious at Markopoulo at the end of 2018. It is unlikely to be the last former UK runner to feature at the track either.
Source: Fin Powrie via Twitter
While a possible resurgence is on the cards for Greek racing, it can not realistically be expected to compete with the UK and Irish scene. Although a number of trainers are starting to look towards countries such as Greece for potential openings, there are still ample opportunities for them back home. The summer flat-racing season in the UK attracts a healthy following and sits alongside the winter jumps cards which contains the likes of the Aintree and Cheltenham Festivals. The latter is one of the most popular sporting events of the year, taking place at the Gloucestershire track every March. The races attract significant media coverage as well as a large number of hefty ante-post bets. According to Oddschecker, some horses such as Annamix are heavily supported prior to making their debut with plenty of hype typically surrounding Irish newcomers.
While Greece is unlikely to ever be able to compete with the clamour that is associated with the Cheltenham Festival and UK racing in general, the future certainly looks bright in Athens. OPAP Group has poured plenty of money into the sport over the past five years and recent improvements to the infrastructure at Markpoulo are likely to see an upturn in attendances at the venue. The Greek Derby has been running for 71 years and appears to be going from strength to strength. The Irish bred YOUTALKINTOME won the prestigious feature race in 2017 and has gone on to become a household name among Greek racing fans. Although the sport has been under the radar for a number of years, it now appears to be in the right hands, taking small steps to expand its horizons and attracting interest from those who have previously been forced to look elsewhere for their sporting fix.
Markpoulo racecourse may be the only option for Greek horse racing punters at the moment but it regularly stages high quality contests and is a superb place for sports fans to enjoy a flutter on a regular basis. It certainly has set a precedence for the possibility of further expansion in the future.