Siena's horserace: a year-long wait for a quick thrill

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The Independent Online

It takes a year for the 17 districts that make up the quiet Tuscan town of Siena to ready themselves for a medieval race that lasts little more than a minute. But it's worth it.

"When you win the Palio, you're on top of the world," Fabio Perinti, the son of a former team captain and himself itching to take part in this year's contest, told AFP.

Twice annually, on July 2 and August 16, Siena's main square transforms into a medieval horserace track.

Thousands of screaming fans cheer for one of 10 districts, or "contrada", selected to run the race in the 14th-century Piazza del Campo.

On Tuesday the draw took place to select which horses will be allocated to the 10 participating districts for the July 2 race.

Each district is named after a different animal including a giraffe, caterpillar, she-wolf, porcupine, goose, and even a unicorn.

Loyalty is high and preparations start early.

The residents of each district elect for a three-year term a "priore", the equivalent of a chief of government, but during the two annual races it is the "capitano" who is the linchpin and key decision-maker on racing strategies, potential coalitions with "friendly" districts and the choice of jockeys.

In Siena's graveyard the tombs of many former chiefs such as Lido Perinti, are marked with their district's animal and a scarf bearing the contrada's local colours.

"The contrada is a bit like a large family. It's a place to socialise, where youths are taught values," said Andrea Viviani, head of the she-wolf district which also doubles-up as a help centre for locals in need, organising regular blood donations.

The she-wolf district also has its own offices and a museum where it keeps the traditional outfits and each of the 34 large silk trophies it has won since the 17th century, the first dating back to 1696 and the latest from 1989.

The Palio lasts about a minute and 15 seconds, just enough to run three times around the Piazza del Campo square, which is the equivalent of some 1,200 metres (less than a mile).

But for a year the district chief and his team study and organise every detail, from the jockey selection, to alliances and bribes to other districts to secure their help in the race, or to prevent a rival district from winning.

The Palio is a no-holds-barred competition: the riders are armed with a short leather strap they use to whip their horse, the opponent's horse or even the opponent himself.

Horses are equipped with increasingly sophisticated protective wear as the race takes on a Formula One motor racing image. But accidents are unavoidable.

A hurt horse is not a dead horse however, and the animals are considered part of the family and looked after accordingly.

"For 20 years now, the town council of Siena has an agreement with our clinic to pay for any treatment wounded horses running at the Palio may need," says surgeon Raffaello Ciampoli, the director of the vet clinic near Siena.

And for those horses that can no longer race the town council also ensures the animals enjoy a peaceful and comfortable "retirement".

The retirement home for Siena's Palio horses opened a few years ago in Palazzo, a town at the heart of the Tuscan hillside.

Here, Altoprato, Quimper, Pegaso, Elmizatopec and Delfort Song, the horses who won the Palio in 1994, eat, sleep and enjoy top-notch health care from vets for the rest of their days.

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