Note: Do not view these photographs if you are uncomfortable with images of violent accidents involving animals and people.
The earthen race track of the Palio is laid out around Il Campo, the historic central piazza in Siena. But Il Campo was not originally designed to be a race track, so its shape includes sharp corners which are not ideal for a horse race. Jockeys struggle to maintain enough speed to win while also safely navigating the corners, but accidents happen with some regularity. Racing without saddles, jockeys fall off frequently enough that if a horse crosses the finish line without its jockey, the horse still wins. At the Palio dell’Assunta I attended in 2011, my camera was pointed at San Martino at the moment that an accident occurred.
A horse loses its footing on the hazardous San Martino corner, setting off a chain reaction that downs several horses and jockeys. At the bottom right corner of the photography, the jockey Brio (Andrea Mari), riding Fedora Saura for the Giraffa contrada, escaped by being ahead of the group and won the Palio dell’Assunta 2011 for Giraffa.
In this alternate detail crop of the previous image, contradaioli react in anguish as they watch their horses fall, also making it impossible for them to win this Palio. Meanwhile, tourists keep their cameras rolling.
The Giraffa jockey looks back to see much of his competition go down.
The Leocorno and Nicchio jockeys manage to avoid the collisions and continue to pursue Giraffa at top speed.
At the bottom right corner of the photograph, the jockeys for Chiocciola, Aquila, and Lupa work together to get horses on their feet as soon as possible to avoid injury.
At Palio dell’Assunta 2012, most of the field went down at San Martino on the first turn, leaving just four horses to finish the race. The removal of so many of the field probably helped the contrada of Valdimontone win for the first time in 22 years.
There are groups who feel that the race should not be held because of the safety issues and the frequency of accidents. But the Palio is historically essential to the life of Siena, and it is such a compelling event that I hope it can continue safely. While Palio fans don’t focus on the controversy, it’s acknowledged as an issue to be addressed; while in Siena I saw a magazine-like publication in Italian that used high-quality photography and lots of text to describe how well the horses are cared for before and after the races.