At the trot, at the gallop

Written by  Vittorio Emiliani
Horses - a ruling passion in Emilia-Romagna
The region around Ferrara has always been racehorse country. The legendary Varenne, bred and raised at Zenzalino di Copparo, proved it in spectacular style. His was the greatest talent ever seen in Italian trotting races, speeding down the track at Mikkeli racecourse in Finland to establish the European record of 1:09.3 for a kilometre.

Understandably many people are now anxiously waiting for the Capitano's descendents to start their racing careers. Varenne, who won 60 million euros from racing and now charges 15 thousand a time in stud fees, was sired by a Waikiki Beach, a great stallion imported from the USA, out of Ialmaz.

To think that this elegant bay with the white star on his forehead was disqualified in his first race for a prolonged canter! However, the importance of the horse in the traditions of Ferrara is evident in Renaissance paintings and in the great cycle of frescoes at Schifanoia. And again: is it just a coincidence that the patron saint of ducal Ferrara is a saint on horseback, the legendary Saint George, who fought and slew the fire-breathing dragon as painted by Cosmè Tura?

Groups of horses were always to be seen on the endless plain of reclaimed land, which today is almost treeless. These were powerful draught horses of Northern origin, from France or Belgium, often used in the place of oxen, which were scarcer here than elsewhere due to the lack of hay or other fodder.

Later, particularly after 1800, other horses were seen pulling the carriages of the local nobility and the gigs of their estate managers or even of the parish priests who ended up in this region that was forever drifting away from Christianity.

The nineteenth century also saw the first trotting races, which were and remain the ruling passion of the Emilia-Romagna region: in fact, the area has five of the main racecourses where national-level trotting races and seasons are held (Bologna, Cesena, Modena, Ravenna and Ferrara) as well as several for training, qualifiers or strictly local events.

For flat racing - unlike in Tuscany or Lombardy - there is not even a single track. Trotting races, then, are the almost exclusive passion. And many of the greatest past and present Italian drivers were born in or originated from the Emilia-Romagna region.

We could start with the Ferrara-based Guzzinati dynasty and their legendary friends and rivals, such as the Reggio Emilia drivers Sergio Brighenti, nicknamed "Pilota" or "El Negher", and William Casoli, known as "Marmotta" (Slowcoach) for his tendency to appear to be dozing on the sulky, but to overtake everybody in the home straight.

However, the history of trotting races cannot overlook families such as the Ossani, Bottoni, Baroncini, Cicognani, Albonetti, Gubellini, Bellei, Bechicchi, Andreghettie, to name but a few.

I well remember Zenzalino's training track, where the all-conquering Varenne was born and built up his bones and hooves. It was a long avenue of tall, green poplars, on a plain where the only splash of green was provided by the summer undergrowth of hemp plants, now grown tall, which would finish up in the mill in September. At the time, the land was owned by the Ravanelli family. It now belongs to Alessandro Viali, a wealthy Milan manager.

Not far away in the opposite direction (on the road from Copparo to Ferrara) another fine racehorse was born during the post-war period and named Birbone ? Rascal - from his habit of stealing apples as a young colt from the orchards round Tamara, which at that time were still few and far between.

He was a speedy bay with a true sporting spirit who loved to be the front runner, according to his driver, the Tuscan-born Vivaldo Baldi, known as "Decione".

Birbone and he were to win the prestigious Lotteria di Agnano three times, claiming their place in history between Mistero, the champion owned by the aristocratic Orsi Mangelli family from Forlì, who won the Prix d'Amérique from Enghien in Paris in 1947, and the rivals Tornese and Crevalcore.

The former was chestnut with a flying mane, driven by the aggressive Brighenti. The latter was black as pitch, also raised in the great Orsi Mangelli training establishment and driven by the cautious Casoli. Birbone remained a strange character and often played tricks, in keeping with his name, on trainers and drivers.

I inherited my passion for horses from my father, who was born in Forlimpopoli, a region of horse-traders who will do anything to sell a broken-winded or lame animal, even going so far as to insert ginger up its backside.

They travel from one market or fair to the next, dressed as vaqueros with boots, waistcoats, red handkerchiefs around their necks and big hats with wide brims and a train ticket or even a toothpick permanently stuck into the ribbon. My father was called up in 1915, when he was barely nineteen, and was put through the gruelling training as a dragoon in the legendary Genova Cavalry.

But after all that he was brought back down to earth soon enough, ending up serving as a machine gunner on the Carso front. Permanent secretary to the municipality, he identified with the Regiment all his life. He loved horse racing (he took me to my first race in the Piazza Ariostea), but as a good romagnolo he was an even greater fan of trotting.

There was just one season held each year in the San Luca stadium in Ferrara. Naturally, we never missed a single meeting.