Italian minister calls for ban on 'violent and cruel' palio horse races

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The Independent Online

On the eve of Italy's celebrated palio horse-racing season, a minister has caused outrage by calling for the famous competitions to be outlawed on animal cruelty grounds.

The medieval summer horse races, in which riders tear bareback through historic city centres, starts this weekend in Feltre in the north-east of Italy, before moving on to Siena in Tuscany in mid-August. But the Tourism Minister, Michela Vittoria Brambilla, on Thursday called for some palio races to go the way of bullfighting in Catalonia, in reference to last month's decision by the Spanish region to outlaw the sport.

"If the Spanish can ban their bullfights, then we can end some of the palii," she said. "The Palio of Siena is the most famous competition, but there are others that use horses, donkeys or geese that are often cruel to the animals and in this day and age make no sense. The violence against animals damages Italy's image."

The civic leaders of towns famous for palio races immediately hit back. "I'm surprised and perplexed by the statement by minister Brambrilla," said the Northern League mayor of Feltre, Gianvittore Vaccari. "The League will never accept that the cultural traditions of our country are repealed and cancelled from history," he added, before inviting the minister to tomorrow's palio in Feltre.

The mayor of Siena, Maurizio Cenni, said: "It's incredible that an Italian minister can make declarations like these, completely without foundation," he said. "This is an embarrassment for the country and an attack on our city."

Ms Brambrilla responded that she had not actually called for a ban on the Siena race, in which 10 horsemen race around the Piazza del Campo, dressed in the historic colours of the city's different wards. The event attracts thousands of visitors from around Italy and beyond every year.

The most dangerous palio-type races, for horses and riders, are unofficial ones. In some parts of Italy, particularly Sicily, gambling on street races is a racket which is thought to earn the Mafia hundreds of millions of euros a year.

Nonetheless, animal rights activists are seeking to get all such races stopped. They claim that the competitions, including Siena's Palio, are cruel and dangerous for the horses, jockeys and spectators. According to the largest campaign group, LAV (the Anti-Vivisection League), 48 animals have died since 1970 as a result of the race. And two animals have died since 2001, the last time new safety measures were introduced.

Last summer, Italy's Welfare Minister, Francesca Martini, announced new rules – including breath-tests for riders and doping tests for animals – in an attempt to stem the tide of accidents. Organisers were also informed of a ban on the traditional whips known as nerbi, which are usually let loose on horses, and even riders, in the no-holds-barred competitions.

Mrs Martini said her ministry had made a video of the worst incidents in palio-type races, which showed "poor creatures with their hooves broken, slipping around on the tortuous track and then having to be killed with a pistol".