FEATURE: Biannual horse races fire up troubled Tuscan city

AFP, SIENA, Italy

Sun, Aug 18, 2013 - Page 6

For residents of Siena — a Tuscan city rocked by financial scandal and economic crisis — summer horse races offer a welcome respite to the doom and gloom.

The famous Palio race on the spectacular Piazza del Campo is held twice a year in July and August and pits traditionally rival neighborhoods against each other.

In Friday’s race, the horse riding for the Onda quarter, or contrada, came first in an exhilarating spectacle lasting just over a minute.

There were scenes of jubilation and even tears in the square from hundreds of supporters of Onda dressed in the team’s turquoise-and-blue colors.

The contest is filled with medieval pageantry and ancient traditions, but it is no tourist spectacle.

“The Palio is our life,” said Francesco, a local coming to see a pre-race selection of the horses.

“When you get into it, it really gets under your skin. People who are not into it can’t understand,” he said.

“It’s a mixture of faith, religion and paganism,” he added.

Siena is a well-heeled Italian city that has been shaken to the core by a wide-ranging investigation into its local bank, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest lender and Italy’s third largest bank.

The troubled bank has traditionally bankrolled many traditional city celebrations, but has been forced to cut back because of a huge hole in its finances that has even put Italy’s banking system on edge.

The financial woes have hit closer to home for proud Siena residents after the bank earlier this year said it would be forced to cut back on Palio sponsorship.

However, there was little sign of concern at preparations for the race this week, as thousands of people from rival quarters chanted and sang their support.

Local pride is so strong in Siena that there are even christenings before the race for newborn babies — a type of initiation into membership of the contrada.

Baptisms are carried out by the neighborhood “prior” and attendants wear the colors of their quarter.

The race — three laps of the square — only lasts just over a minute but contrada allegiance is for life.

It also attracts huge numbers of tourists every year.

The parade before Friday’s race included the alfieri, flag-wavers parading in medieval costumes, as well as a show put on by mounted police units.

The square is readied for the race with a covering of tonnes of soil to create a track, surrounded by stands for the thousands of spectators who come every year.

The race is held between 10 horses — chosen at random from the 17 neighborhoods of the city — and the contest is dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

The contrade prepare all year: making costumes, holding dress rehearsals and training the horses.

The winner is always the horse that comes first — whether or not its jockey has fallen off or not.

One rider in the bareback race was thrown off in Friday’s race, but was uninjured.

The horses are chosen at random to give an equal chance to all the contrade in a ceremony that takes place in the same week as the race.

A Turkish tourist in Siena, Huseyfe, said: “People go crazy when they find out which horse will be running for their neighborhood. This is something that is really important for the people of Siena.”