Death or glory in 90 seconds: there are no rules in the Palio

European Times SIENA
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THE TOLLING of the huge bronze bell this afternoon in Siena's medieval tower will herald the start of the Palio, the unique 90-second horse race that galvanises the Tuscan city for days. The shell-shaped piazza, the campo, will already be packed with onlookers, most of them locals. The songs of the rival contrade, or city districts, will have been echoing around the piazza for hours.

Tension will mount during the traditional procession in historic costume that precedes the race itself. Interspersed with flag-twirling lads in breeches, pages, crossbowmen and aristocratic ladies in court attire will be policemen, trade unionists and academics.

For a few days each summer, the entire town is absorbed in a ritual that has remained unchanged for centuries. Horses representing the 10 participating contradas, each bearing the district's symbol - for example the wolf, the goose, the unicorn - tear around the campo at breakneck speed in a spectacle that lasts a bare 90 seconds. But while the 1999 version of the Palio will be every bit as colourful and exhilarating as its predecessors, there are some changes. Although the Sienese would vehemently deny it, they have been forced to adapt to the times. In recent years, the Palio has come under increasingly fierce criticism from animal rights groups.

In Palios past, the horses used were sturdier breeds ridden by cowboys in the Maremma district. Now they are thoroughbreds, faster and more fragile, their spindly legs ill suited to a cobbled piazza with steep curves. Five horses have had to be put down in the past 10 races, many coming to grief on the treacherous San Martino bend. Brigitte Bardot and other celebrities have joined calls from animal rights groups for an end to what they consider a barbaric rite. Last year, two horses, White Feather and Tuareg, had to be destroyed, provoking condemnation.

This year, with a little help from the motor-racing industry, the organisers are hoping to limit the damage. Special barriers made of PVC, similar to those used in Formula One racing, are being placed around the most dangerous parts of the track. Also, in a nod to the phobia over doping in sport and repeated accusations that the steeds are drugged, the horses will be blood tested before the event. Toxicologists and city officials have drawn up a list of prohibited substances. But in keeping with the spirit of the contest, the specimens will only be examined if there is an inquiry or accident during the race. If not, the winner could be stuffed full of EPO or anabolic steroids and no one would be any the wiser - because in the Palio anything is admissible, betrayal, backstabbing, skulduggery or just plain cheating. The only thing forbidden is losing.

The horses are drawn out of a hat by two pageboys with great pomp and ceremony and awarded to the different contrade, who then choose their own jockey. And that is when the fun begins. The horses are guarded round the clock and pampered during the trials. Poisoning or attempting to injure the horse of a rival is perfectly acceptable. But while the horses are the stars of the show - the steed can still win even if the jockey has fallen off before the finish line - their performance is not really what determines who wins or loses.

Jockeys can be bribed and are allowed to strike out at their fellow riders during the race. And if one must lose, the next best thing is ensuring that your rival does not win either. Some districts are ancient rivals - a bit like Liverpool and Everton - and have been known to pay jockeys to sabotage the others. Large sums of money are gambled on the results, but most of all the race is a question of pride.

It is hard for an outsider to understand the passionate sense of belonging to a contrada. At my first Palio four years ago, I met Giorgio and Silvia, an otherwise happily wed couple in their late twenties. During the four days of run-up to the palio, Silvia returns home to her family in the Snail contrada. "I couldn't stand being in the same house as Giorgio, who is from the Dragon. We would have nothing to say to one another," she said matter of factly. Lifelong friends, from different districts, will not acknowledge one another if they pass in the street.

I attended a banquet in the Tortoise contrada for a thousand people where we were shown a video with Rambo-style music exalting the contrada, the horse, the jockey, and recounting victories past. In truth, they could have spared themselves the expense. My fellow diners were more than hyped up enough.

There is something cathartic about all this. The industrious citizens of Siena are allowed to indulge all the meanest, lowest human behaviour twice a year, in July and August, and then return to their normal lives in a town that was last year voted to have the best quality of life in Italy.

Frances Kennedy