Yes, a loose horse without tack is allowed to win a race. At
least when that race is one of the oldest in the world and held twice a year on
a makeshift, clay course that circles a town square in the heart of Italy.
Competing on behalf of the regal district whose mascot is oca,
the Italian word for goose, Zio Frac lost his rider Carlo Sanna with a half-lap
to go but still ran on and won Wednesday evening’s 1 1/2-minute Palio di Siena, a race literally full of thrills and spills that
has been held in Tuscany for nearly 400 years.
Horses representing the 17 districts of Siena race every
July 2 and Aug. 16, important dates on the Catholic calendar. Each Palio has 10
horses, so any given district known in Italian as a contrada is guaranteed of
getting into the Palio once a year, and three get in twice.
Jockeys ride bareback, their only tack being bridles and
reins. They wear the colors of the districts they represent, looking more like
18th-century conquerors than 21st-century athletes. The only hard and fast rule is riders may not try to manhandle opponents, either human or equine.
Giovanni Atzeni, the jockey better known as Tittia who was trying
to win his sixth consecutive Palio and 11th overall, got off to a flier of a
start. He and his horse literally jumped the gun before the designated outside
horse known as the rincorsa formally began the race by crossing through the two
ropes at the start-finish line.
The cousin of Thoroughbred jockey Andrea Atzeni had
an easy lead midway through the first of three laps in the roughly one-mile
race. Making the right turn through the narrow curve of San Martino, Atzeni’s
horse lost his footing and skidded into a padded barrier, dismounting his jockey
before running loose.
Horses do not have to have their jockeys aboard to win the
Palio, so even after losing Tittia, the horse representing the giraffe district
could have run on and won.
All the while, the panther contrada’s horse Anda and Bola, a
7-year-old, had an easy lead by as many as 10 lengths. Then in a repeat of the
first lap, that horse skidded and stumbled through the same turn where
Tittia fell. Sanna fell moments later, but his 8-year-old gelding Zio Frac
gathered his momentum to win for the goose contrada. It was the horse’s second
triumph in three Palio tries.
There was no immediate report on the condition of the fallen
jockeys. Tittia’s horse Abbasantesa, a 7-year-old mare, and 7-year-old gelding
Antine Day were taken to a clinic to treat their injuries, according to a
statement from the city government of Siena.
More than 50 horses reportedly have died in the more than 100
runnings of the Palio since 1970, making the timeless event a frequent target of
animal-rights activists while also being written into the town history in its UNESCO heritage listing.
The race took about a half-hour to get started after it was
scheduled to go off at about 7 p.m. local time. Six of the 10 horses jostled
with one another between the starting ropes, and they were ordered to back out
and file in again four times.
As usual, the Palio course inside the Piazza del Campo was ringed
and stuffed with thousands of spectators. Those on the perimeter of the course
paid sometimes thousands of dollars for their vantage points in hotels, restaurants,
shops and the Siena city hall. Others who paid far less crammed themselves for
hours into the unshaded infield, where the views were not as favorable and the
94-degree heat felt more intense.
Even before the race was finished, fans streamed onto the
course as if they were storming the field at a football game. They surrounded
the victorious horse, the gelding of the goose, in celebration of this rite of
summer that will not happen again for another 10 1/2 months.