Messi, a 6-year-old mixed-breed bay gelding, died after colliding into a wall during a sharp turn on the course in a practice run for the Palio de Siena, or “Il Palio”. The accident occurred at a sharp turn known as the San Martino bend. Messi stood after the crash, limped to the town hall, promptly collapsed. The fallen horse was rushed to a veterinary clinic, but died. The official cause of death was “heart attack.”
Death and Festival
The Associated Press reports that since 1970 around 50 racehorses have died during or in training for this race. It is unknown how many have died since the race began in 1656.
Animal rights groups, including Italian groups, have been trying to ban the Palio for many years. Even Italy’s own tourism minister, Michela Bambrilla has called for the race to be stopped. The only concessions made for horse and human safety in the entire history of the race has been to lash some mattresses along the walls of the course and to limit the number of horses in the race to ten.
Why the Palio is So Dangerous
Unlike most modern horse races, the Palio is not held on a racecourse or on an open plain. This race is held in the main plaza of Siena. Horses run on a layer of earth spread over paved roads and must negotiate incredibly sharp turns and downward sloping streets against stone and concrete walls. Although mattresses were a recent innovation, they obviously weren’t adequate enough for Messi.
The race is run without saddles. Since jockeys can and do fall off during the race, the winner is the first horse to complete the course. This differs from flat racing and steeplechasing, where the horse must still carry the jockey over the finish line. Jockeys carry traditional whips made from bull penises. Horses wear a special decoration atop of their bridles that represents which district or Contado of Siena they represent.
The Palio is run twice a year on July 2 and August 16 in conjunction with Catholic festivals. Occasionally a third Palio is added to the calendar — run anytime between May and September — in order to celebrate an unusual happening, such as the start of a new millennium. Although the Palio lasts an average of 90 seconds, it may be the last 90 seconds of many horse’s lives.
The Horse. “Horse Dies Before Traditional Italian Race.” Erica Larson. July 1, 2011. http://www.thehorse.com/ViewArticle.aspx?ID=18480
Associated Press. “Horse named Mississippi wins Palio in Siena amid uproar over death of horse during warmup.” July 2, 2011. http://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/horse-named-mississippi-wins-palio-in-siena-amid-uproar-over-death-of-horse-during-warmup/2011/07/02/AG5ieHvH_story.html
Il Palio. “The Palio Horse Race.” http://www.ilpalio.org/palioenglish.htm