The future of the medieval horse race in the Tuscan city of Pistoia was in doubt after two horses were put down after breaking their legs during the race.
Animal rights activists screamed abuse and spectators watched in stunned silence as the injured animals were carted off to be destroyed soon after the start of their heats in the 2014 Giostra dell’Orso (Golden Carousel) race in Pistoia, north-west of Florence, on Friday evening.
The deaths of two animals have reignited the seasonal controversy over the palio, of which the most famous takes place in Siena. Friday’s race in Pistoia was allowed to take place in the confines of the town’s medieval central piazza, even though heavy rain had made conditions more treacherous than usual.
The accidents came in the penultimate and final rounds when the horses, Oracle Force and Golden Storming, set off at breakneck speed around the square as their riders attempted to throw spears at a target.
After the second accident in a matter of minutes, Golden Storming limped off the course, its right hind leg twisted sickeningly out of shape, to shouts of “shame” and “bastards”, from protesters. Vets quickly destroyed both animals. The riders suffered only minor injuries.
“It was terrible. The whole piazza stopped cheering. Everyone understood that something awful had happened,” one of the supporters of the Dragon team told Corriere della Sera newspaper.
The competition was halted without a winner being named – the first time this happened in the event’s history.
Press reports said that some teams had already withdrawn from the competition due to the difficult conditions, and that concerns about safety were voiced but appear to have been ignored.
Lorenzo Lombardi, co-president of the Tuscan Greens party, said the Pistoia races were a “carousel of death which had killed seven horses and made another 17 lame”.
Michela Vittoria Brambilla, another animal rights campaigner and former minister, said: “Events like these have nothing to do with culture and tradition, but they are a throwback to a time in which absolutely no account was taken of animals’ welfare.”
The mayor of Pistoia, Samuele Bertinelli, announced that next year’s palio race had already been cancelled. There was a feeling among locals that the race might suffer a considerably longer suspension, or even an indefinite ban in the absence of improvement in safety standards.
According to Italy’s largest animal rights group, LAV (the Anti-Vivisection League), 50 or more animals have died since 1970 as a result of palio races. The LAV president Gianluca Felicetti announced that his organisation was launching legal action against the organisers of the Pistoia palio under an animal rights section of Italy’s penal code.
In 2009, Italy’s then Welfare Minister, Francesca Martini, introduced new rules – including breath-tests for riders and doping tests for animals – in an attempt to stem the tide of accidents. Ms Martini said her ministry had made a video of the worst incidents in palio races, which showed “poor creatures with their hooves broken, slipping around on tortuous tracks and then having to be killed”.