Speedy Snail Wins Siena Palio

From ITALY DAILY, published with Corriere Della Sera
and distributed with the International Herald Tribune.

Milan, Tuesday, August 17, 1999
By Rachel Donadio, Italy Daily staff

Though his team bore the emblem of a snail, jockey Massimo Coghe lunged ahead Monday to win the Palio, the famed horse race in which bareback riders clad in Medieval dress dash three times around Siena's Piazza del Campo.

Riding a horse called Votta Votta, Mr. Coghe, nicknamed Massimino, managed to dash past the other nine riders to win the second edition of the race held each July 2 and Aug. 16 in the Tuscan town for his team, the Chiocciola, or snail.

In a tradition that dates back to the 13th century, thousands of spectators packed the Campo waving flags of each of the Medieval districts, while spectators who could afford it bought spots in the rooms with a view overlooking the shell-shaped piazza, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife.

Though the race itself is over in a flash, the Palio effectively begins months earlier, when the "contrade" kick off complex horse-trading to snag the best jockeys, or to gang up on rival districts to ensure that they don't get the prime pick. Bribery is common and vast sums of money can change hands.

"The Palio has two components: the first is fate and fortune, which you're powerless against, and the second comes from trickery and skill, which 
counter-balance fate."

Though deal-making is an essential element of the Palio, Monday's race was preceded by more controversy than usual, stemming from jockey Andrea De Gortes, a 14-time Palio winner. Known by his nickname "Aceto," or vinegar, Mr. De Gortes confirmed what he had written in a tell-all account in 1992, when he admitted to paying off a starter. The book stirred up accusations of corruption.

But in his annual pre-Palio press conference Monday, Siena Mayor Pierluigi Piccini brushed the polemics aside. He said the accusations were "an old scoop," and added that rigging the Palio by paying off certain players was legitimate according to the race's unwritten rules.

"The Palio has two components: the first is fate and fortune, which you're powerless against, and the second comes from trickery and skill, which counter-balance fate," Mr. Piccini said. "We think of Greek myths and scenes from antiquity, which have nothing to do with corruption."

In recent years, animal rights activists have also become a mainstay at the Palio. Their protests that the horses are subject to undue cruelty resulted in the recent installation of mattresses along the curves of the course, of the same ilk as the buffers used in Formula One auto racing, and the adoption of an anti-doping protocol for the horses.

Italy's Anti-vivisection League, which had praised Mr. De Gortes' book for revealing Palio secrets from an insider perspective, said Monday it had asked the Supreme Council of Magistrates to open an investigation into Siena officials for granting nearly total immunity to those who may have been responsible for the deaths of 43 horses since 1970, as well as for "other illicit activities, such as corruption." "The rule of the Palio is to break every rule, which is an extremely grave and dangerous practice since it undermines citizens' faith in justice and represents an open challenge to the law," the League said.

League President Angela Marino also said it was "intolerable" that the RAI state broadcaster air the Palio due to alleged animal rights violations.

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