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Passions run high in medieval bareback race


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  • The popular annual Palio race in Siena is a bareback dash around the city’s main square

    Steeped in Italian tradition the legendary Palio race took place around the city square in Siena, Tuscany, on Friday (16 August.)

    The event takes place twice a year in July and August and its roots can be traced back to the 13th century. Held in honour of the Virgin Mary the event was originally intended to occupy the Italian men when they were not fighting in wars.

    The no-holds-barred race attracts huge crowds who come to watch the fast and furious event in which 10 jockeys race each other bareback for three circuits around the city’s Piazza del Campo.

    Months of preparation and four days of frantic activity precede the race which lasts approximately 90 seconds.

    Participating horses are chosen by lots and prior to the race, successful entrants are taken into local churches to be blessed by priests.

    There are no hard or fast rules other than the jockeys may not grab the reins of another horse. Kidnap, bribery and drugging is said to be commonplace and it is the first horse past the post with or without its rider who wins.

    Although celebrated by many Italians, the race has attracted criticism from animal lovers who highlight statistics which show that since 1970, 43 horses have died taking part in this annual event.

    However, in recent years, the race organisers have worked hard and conditions for the horses taking part have improved considerably. They now race on compacted yellow earth and straw rather than road, and there have been no recorded horse deaths for the past three years.

    David Ward from the World Equine Organisation said: “This race lasts a very short time and is far less damaging to the hoses taking part than completing a days hunting or taking part in theGrand National.”

    Manfredi Bargioni, a Palio enthusiast from Florence, believes that it is more than a race. “It is a celebration of our history, our culture and our competitive nature,” he said.

    “What the observer might not understand is that the Senesi [residents of Siena] love the horses which run the Palio. They are well cared before and after their racing life in special yards devoted to the training and the well-being of the cavalli da Palio [Palio horses].

    “Several measures introduced in the past have also significantly reduced the risks of the race which now are probably lower than those in a three-day event.”

    Read more about racing in Italy:

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