The Italian Horse Race

Horse racing is one of the oldest sports, and its basic premise hasn’t changed in centuries: A competitor races a horse against other competitors. The winner takes home the prize money. The sport has morphed into a global entertainment industry with fields of thousands of horses, elaborate electronic monitoring equipment and vast sums of money, but the essential feature is still the same. It’s a contest of speed or stamina.

Behind the romanticized facade of horse racing is a world of drug abuse, gruesome breakdowns and slaughter. Horses used for racing are forced to sprint—often under the threat of whips—at speeds so fast that they frequently suffer injuries and even hemorrhage from their lungs. Despite this, millions of people continue to gamble and drink mint juleps, believing that the sport is broadly fair and honest.

In the ancient world, jockeys sprayed a concoction called hydromel into their horses’ mouths to increase their stamina. The Romans and the British punished cheaters by crucifixion. Later, the United States developed a reputation for innovative performance-enhancing drugs. Cocaine, heroin, strychnine and caffeine were all used. Random testing is now in place, but many racehorses test positive for banned substances. Trainers often over-medicate and over-train their horses, causing them to break down, and eventually end up at the auction or slaughterhouse. Many veterinarians who are ethical abandon the industry because they can’t watch the abuses any longer.

On a warm morning in early May, in Siena’s central square, the Piazza del Campo, horsemen were prepping the track for the big day. A gritty mixture of dirt and clay was packed onto the golden cobblestones to create a tight, level track for the horses, while keeping the surface intact. Bleachers were assembled for the thousands of spectators, and barriers were erected to separate the crowd from the runners.

The horses gathered at the starting gate. At first, Mongolian Groom balked. His coat looked bright in the walking ring, and his rider, Abel Cedillo, a journeyman from Guatemala, was patient. If a horse balks, it’s frightened or angry and not ready to run.

But eventually the horse got going, and he moved with hypnotic smoothness across the backstretch, awash in pinkish light. War of Will, the 2012 Preakness champion, took the lead around the clubhouse turn, with McKinzie and Mongolian Groom just behind him. In a field of eleven horses, the lead changed hands repeatedly.