Miss Danehill has now taken the lead, 10 metres in front of Vegas Time. Theyre coming round the bend... The excited commentary is blasting out from the loudspeakers. Close to the winning post, a giant colour TV screen shows horses still out of sight charging round the track. Theyre into the straight now... a surprise there ..... Mr Silgab is coming up fast. This is a great fight. Gloria Day is now challenging Miss Danehill as well. Its neck-and-neck and the winner is...isMr Silgabwinner of the 1,200 m 15.30 handicap, our fifth race today

It was a miserable, cold and drizzly day in November; planes overhead were coming in to land at nearby Ciampino airport, the Alban Hills were blurred outlines in the distance. However, despite the bleakness of it all, several hundred punters had turned up to bet on the gee-gees at Capannelle, known in the trade as the temple of Italian racing. In May it hosts the Italian derby, the biggest fixture of the racing year.

But Capannelle, the racing calendar showed, was a hectic place almost the year round. Horses thundered around its tracks three times a week on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays. It totted up to 110 days of sport a year, or 980 actual races, which last year involved as many as 8,621 horses.

A thousand steeds are stabled at Capannelle permanently while the humans enmeshed in the business total 800. They all take three months off in summer, which is when shoals of music-fans invade the turf for pop concerts by world famous names.

On that November day alone, seven races were being run, six of them - strangely for an Englishman - on sand, with a total of 94 nags fighting it out in the rain. The 15.30 was the only one on the parallel turf track and helmeted jockeys in their bright colours were leading their sweating mounts back through the paddock to their boxes. Punters were leaning over a rail weighing up the contenders in the next race, who were being led out of their stalls to be saddled up; all of these horses were frisky and rebellious, almost exclusively from so-called English thoroughbred stock.

The four elegant grandstands were almost empty, but inside in long halls, punters were queuing up to bet on the tote at some of the 135 ticket windows or do-it-yourself betting machines. The minimum bet allowed was e2. Other punters were collecting their takings, some stuffing e100 notes into the wallets, and among them must have been the owner of the horse Mr Silgab who had just raked in e10,625. His trainer would have earned e3,250, while the owner of the runner-up in the 15.30 would be pocketing e4,675. It was the most lucrative event of the day.

The most comfortably ensconced that afternoon were observing the racecourse from within the warm luxury of the Terrazza Derby, a lounge for members of Romes exclusive clubs, designed by none other than that sought-after architect Paolo Portoghese. Who was allowed in? Capannelles public relations officer, smartly turned-out Caterina Vagnozzi, sipped a Brunello in the lounge and listed not only the capitals renowned turf, jockey and rowing clubs but, surprisingly, the Rome Fox-Hunting Club (Societ Romana Caccia alla Volpe).

Fox-hunting in Rome? Vagnozzis answer was that without foxes, there would be no Capannelle. In the early 19th century, an Englishman, Lord Stanhope, discovered that Romes then deserted countryside was a paradise for fox-hunting. Stanhope became entranced by the area called Capannelle (after strange huts once scattered about sheltering wayfarers), romantically overlooked by the ruins of the aqueduct of Claudius. Having decided it was just the place for the sport of kings, Stanhope organised a two-day meet in 1844 and thus a tradition was born. The first racecourse proper opened on the present site in 1881, and todays grandiose designer layout took shape in 1926.

Today is not at all typical, explained Vagnozzi. Its just routine. A bit boring. You should be here in spring, our best season. Its beautiful. In Rome, going to the races is traditionally a family affair. They make a picnic of it. They bring the kids along to see the horses. Theres a play-centre for them with clowns and the like. Some families get here at six in the morning to prepare for lunch at barbecue sites weve provided. They have a great time. Our serious betters tend to be around 35-50 years of age and older. For the derby on the last Sunday in May, we get 10-11,000 people here. Its a splendid sight.

Capannelle offers not only flat-racing but steeplechasing and cross-country; the only other course in Italy that comes near to it is the S. Siro in Milan.

How much do jockeys earn? A suited official answered that they were paid e70 for each mount they rode plus five per cent of the prize money if they came in first. Jockeys in second and third place would have to make do with a flat rate of e75 and e50 respectively. On average, a professional would weigh only about 52 kilos; most of them lived not far from the racecourse itself. Special races were laid on for amateur jockeys known in Italian as gentlemen-riders (and they were allowed to tip the scales at 65 kilos); while their female counterpart is referred to as an amazzone.

And what of Romes other big racecourse, Tor di Valle, off the road to Ostia? That, Vagnozzi said, was for trotting, on the whole more popular in Italy than the gallop which, however, was more distinguished.

How to get there: The quickest way to Capannelle is a 10-minute train journey from Stazione Termini. The entrance is then 5 minutes walk away or one stop away with the 654 bus. Otherwise travel by car to Via Appia Nuova 1255. Ample parking. Tel. 0671671. Tor di Valle (opened in 1960): By metro: linea B and alight at Tordivalle. By car: 9 km from Rome on Via del Mare. Tel. 06524761.