The Italian Almanac

racing the Palio

Italian News - August 18

Siena was girding itself for its renowned Palio race on Tuesday amid heightened security in the wake of last month's terror attacks in London. Police sources have stressed that no specific threat has been received. But the centuries' old race, which has become a international symbol of Italian tradition, draws tourists and media from around the world, making it an attractive target.

For the first time, spectators entering the central square where the race is staged were required to pass through metal detectors. Roadblocks were set up early Tuesday morning to seal off the centre of the Tuscan town, which usually only shuts to traffic late in the afternoon. Sharpshooters have been located on building tops around the historic Piazza del Campo and sniffer dogs are patrolling the area. Police have also urged locals to refrain from the usual post-race scuffles to avoid distracting attention from more pressing security issues at hand.

While security at the Palio this year is particularly tight following the recent terror actions, policing is usually tough at the race. As well as brawls between competing neighborhoods, the race has been at the centre of growing polemics between authorities and animal rights activists over its impact on the horses. It is now a year since the death of Amoroso, the bay who broke his neck, and the serious injury of three other horses. Yet Siena city council and the organizers have taken no concrete steps to safeguard spectators and animals.

Il Palio, meaning banner, dates back to the 13th century and takes place each year on July 2 and August 16. Jockeys from ten of Siena's 17 neighborhoods, or "contrade", compete for the silk prize in a 90-second bareback race around the city's main square. The only rule in the competition is that the jockeys mustn't grab the reins of their adversaries. That means whipping a rival's horse or even knocking a jockey off his steed is allowed. Victory goes to the first horse to complete three laps of the square, even if it arrives at the finishing post without a rider.