Racehorses savour a whiff of revenge

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THE HORSES of Siena's Palio race, three of whose number were put to death amid an international outcry after disastrous accidents in July, are savouring a whiff of revenge.

In this year's second edition of the bare-back race in the city's main square on Monday evening, all the horses finished safe and sound - and most of them without riders. Eight jockeys bit the dust, several of them at the notoriously dangerous San Martino corner between an electrical appliance shop and a snack bar, where one horse came to grief in July. Four of the hapless riders were patched up in hospital.

Since it is only the horses that count anyway, the first past the post - Vittorio, a six-year-old English thoroughbred running for the Drago (Dragon) contrada or district - was declared the winner even though he was among those who had thrown his rider.

For good measure, some 30 people had been treated the previous evening for broken noses and other injuries after the customary eve-of-race street parties ended in a punch-up between the rival contrade of Torre (tower) and Onda (wave) which left the pavement littered with shoes, spectacles and pieces of torn shirts.

But animal protection campaigners, such as the Italian anti-vivisection league, were not pacified. 'You cannot trust to luck to avoid death and injuries,' it said. 'Since 1967 the Palio has run up the unenviable average of one and a half horses killed per year.' Princess Anne, Brigitte Bardot, the film director Franco Zeffirelli and a host of lesser-known animal-lovers have called for the abolition of the brief and extremely fast bareback race run twice yearly round the sloping, tufa-paved square. One of the problems is that, with the demand for speed, more and more thoroughbreds are being raced whose frames are too fragile for the perilous course.

The Palio, despite its fame, is not a mere tourist attraction but a tradition that goes deep into the ancient origins and the passions of the Sienese. It is one of ten festivals under Unesco protection and for Mayor Pierluigi Piccini it is unthinkable that it should be abolished.

He emphatically denies that the Sienese are cruel to their horses and says they can spend up to pounds 4,000 to save the life of an injured horse. He also cites elaborate and expensive arrangements to look after the horses long after their racing careers. But the anti- vivisection lobby says: 'It could be true that the Palio is not cruel to animals. It simply kills them.'

At least this year the horses were able to settle a few old scores.