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Tuesday, August 17, 1999 Published at 07:41 GMT 08:41 UK


Blair's Tuscany horse race: Who, what & why?

Hot Ticket: Siena's controversial Palio race

Tony Blair's troubled Italian holiday, which has been dogged by controversy, has run into more grief because of his decision to go to Siena's Palio, a centuries-old horse race.

[ image: The Blairs went despite animal rights protests]
The Blairs went despite animal rights protests
Animal rights campaigners claim the race through the city's streets is cruel to the horses. But if he had chosen not to attend, Mr Blair risked offending his hosts, who had invited him to the event.

The Blair family's two-week holiday has already caused a stir, with complaints that Italian taxpayers would foot the bill and that a popular beach near their retreat had been closed for security reasons.

But what is the Palio, who takes part in it, and why is it so controversial?

What is the Palio?

The BBC's David Willey reports on the Palio
The Palio is a fast and furious bare-back horserace around Siena's Piazza del Campo, usually completed in 90 seconds and rife with rumours of cheating and sabotage in the bid to win the coveted Palio, or banner.

[ image: The much-coveted Palio banner]
The much-coveted Palio banner
It is held twice a year amid much medieval merrymaking - the first in July, with the second and final race this week. Horses represent the different districts of the city.

The Palio dates back to the 14th Century and is a source of intense pride to the Sienese. Happily-married couples from different districts in Siena will sometimes live apart in the build-up to the event, because to live with a rival would test their loyalties too sorely.

Who is going?

Thousands of people. Spectators pour into the centre of the ring during the day, and there's hardly room to move. Those who prefer to view the race in comfort will have paid upward of £100 for a ringside ticket.

[ image: Crowds pack out Siena's square to watch the race]
Crowds pack out Siena's square to watch the race
The Blairs have been invited to watch the race from the palace of the Countess Cesarina Pannochieschi d'Elci - the second time the invitation has been extended. Sienas mayor Pierluigi Piccini suggested the family attend last year's race, but the offer was declined for security reasons.

The Duchess of York and her friend, Count Gaddo della Gherardesca, were also reportedly invited.

What happens?

[ image: A winning jockey celebrates]
A winning jockey celebrates
The build-up to the race is a spectacle of pomp and ceremony, with costumed Sienese parading through the banner-decked streets. Less visible is the behind-the-scenes skulduggery carried out as each of the city's 10 districts gear up to win the Palio.

Each district nominates a rider to compete in the 90-second dash, and the winning jockey is feted like a king. Even if a jockey falls off - not an uncommon occurrence - a riderless steed can still win.

Why the fuss?

Animal-rights campaigners say the race is barbaric - 38 horses have died since 1975, including two last year.

[ image: Riderless horses pose a risk to other jockeys]
Riderless horses pose a risk to other jockeys
Most of the fatal accidents occurred at the treacherous San Martino curve, until recently padded with old mattresses. In a bid to soften the race's dangerous image, Formula One barriers now line the course and horses will be drug-tested before the race.

Because winning is everything in the Palio, pretty much anything goes - jockeys are bribed to sabotage another rider's chances, and frequent attempts are made to poison or injury a rival district's horse.

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