A day with a horse race can’t be bad

(Video caption: Drummers from the different contradas lead fans to Siena’s Piazza del Camp.)

Saturday, July 1, 2017: Clear the way, tourists. Stand aside, Siena residents not from il contrada Giraffa. Our drummers are headed for the Piazza del Campo. We are the champions.

Or so they were on July 2, 2017, when that parish/neighborhood in the Tuscan city of Siena won the Palio, reputed to be the oldest horse race in the world. The event attracts thousands of tourists leading up to the two summer dates when the races are held, July 2 and August 16. As for bragging rights in Siena, nothing else matters. The horses are blessed in the contrada churches. The place is packed. The odds might be stacked. The crowds go wild.

(Video caption: Enthusiasm rules the day at the Palio.)

We wanted to be in Siena for the main event on July 2, but the ticket prices ($1,000 for a bleacher seat) were out of our range. So we settled for July 1 and a preliminary race.

Nonetheless, it was a memorable day – and Cole and Kathy each added antics to make it so. And no day with a horse race can be a bad day in my book.

The drive from Montepulciano to Siena took way less time than finding a parking place. All the lots set aside for visitors were full. We finally lucked out when we stopped behind a car pulling out of a street spot. Then came a half hour of trying to figure out the parking pay machine with a Frenchman who had had similar luck and was similarly stumped. With four of us and two languages, we finally cracked the code.

On our way to the piazza, I bought two scarves like those race fans were wearing and immediately became a backer of the Istrice (porcupine) contrada. Then a shopkeeper told us that the neighborhoods represented by my scarves were not racing this year. This after wandering around the city trying to find the neighborhoods where “our” flags were flying. They weren’t. Only 10 of the 17 contradas race each year. Ours didn’t make it through the lottery that selects who will race.

CathedralBut in our wandering, we visited the city’s most famous cathedral, did some shopping and jostled with the crowds in the narrow streets, which was nothing compared to what was to come.

I rushed us into the piazza about 90 minutes before the 7 p.m. race to be sure to get a good spot along the infield rail. The race is three times around the Piazza del Campo, which is converted into a dirt track between the free standing room in the infield and the bleachers up against the buildings surrounding the central plaza. The windows of the apartments around the piazza are probably the best places for seeing the race – and the most expensive.

 

Empty.JPG
We arrived at the nearly empty Piazza del Campo 90 minutes before the race

In the next two hours, 60,000 or so people joined us inside the infield barriers. Fans are allowed on the track before the race. Restaurants set up tables for dining al fresco. Drinks are served.

We were in the shade, but it was hot. Anyone in the Palio infield should ”give up all idea of personal space,” travel guru Rick Steves writes in his guidebook. Little kids crawl under you and climb up the rail to sit on it right in front of your nose. People smoke, drink, shout, sing and carouse. But all seemed to be going well. Kathy, who has panic attacks in closed, crowded places, was keeping white-knuckle control on the situation. Cole was standing at the rail, anticipating the start of the race, and then he wasn’t. He just dropped out of sight into the crowd, which reacted to his fainting in very generous ways, clearing space around him, offering water, getting him into a sitting position and making him stay quiet until he regained equilibrium. I was trying to think how the call to his parents would go. Then he got up, more pale than the gray that would run later in the race.

Full
By race time, 60,000 people had crowded into the infield

“Everything was fine,” he said, “until I woke up and all I could see were people’s feet. Then I thought, ‘Oh no, I passed the fuck out again.’ ”

Thank you, Cole, for a concise rendering of events.

I had wondered how this dirt track, crowded with swaying drunks and laughing fans, could be cleared to make way for the horses. Then, on the other side of the circle from us, a phalanx of police started walking around the track, driving the rowdies before them. Where would those people go? There was no room in the bleachers for them. The infield would burst if one more person tried to squeeze in. Were they being swept into a drain at the end of the track?

Police
Police clear the track. The man in the green shirt is wearing a scarf similar to the ones I bought

In the short distance between the police and the cleanup crew that followed, Kathy’s panic attacked. She freaked, announced she had to get out of there, clambered over the rail and headed for the drain, breaking through the police line from behind and disappearing into the crowd.

A better man might have been angry, another man might have been hurt, but another man never would have let her go (thank you, Harry Chapin). I turned my attention to the race. It was post time.

Cleaning
First the police, then the cleaning crew

The Palio races start with all the horses but one lined up behind a rope. The remaining horse is the starting horse (the movie “Palio” is great for explaining all this). None of the riders can start until the starter makes his break down the track and the rope is dropped. The trick is to have your horse facing in the right direction when the starter goes. That doesn’t always happen, and those not in positions trail the field. Negotiations with the starter before the race could be advantageous, I think. Just saying.We (Cole and I) were about halfway around the track from the start so we saw the horses and some of the riders blow by us three times for maybe 30 seconds total of close-up viewing. As they passed, every kind of camera equipment was hung out over the rail so close the jockeys could have snatched them away – and horse slobber on lenses was a very real risk.

Winner
A riderless horse won the race

I say some of the riders passed by. Others fell off. But that matters little since a riderless horse can win this race, which is what happened on this day. A tightly-packed muscular little black horse, sans rider, crossed the finish line first and some contrada somewhere went crazy. Actually, everyone in the city went crazy. Horses were paraded out of the ring by singing followers. More cheering and drumming as fans left the piazza.

We found Kathy through text messages. She had watched the race on a TV set up outside the piazza, which is where all the track occupiers had ended up, swept out an exit to try to find a place to watch the Palio, perhaps the best horse race in the world.

Horse

Why is retirement so hard to say?

Wendy-Jerry
Wendy and Jerry on the Emerald City Bike Ride on the new bridge over Lake Washington

When I put out my list of Mad Schemes to accomplish in 2016, I had not planned on so many of my potential Schemers to be as nutty about work as I have been. I seemed to have been dropped into a pool of people who say they are retired except for when they are working.

“I’m retiring but I’ll still be working two days a week.”

“I’m retired but I’ll still be on call.”

“I’m retired but I signed up to substitute.”

“I’m retired except for the seven weeks I have worked this year and whenever the paper calls on me to cover a horse race or do a book review.”

That last one is my hypocritical statement about my retirement. The last part of that confused view is usually followed by my excited statement of how after 50 plus years of work life I have found the perfect job for me: Getting paid to read books.

And like all my friends who have one foot in retirement and one foot still stuck in work, I mouth the same trite excuses:

“It’s not so bad if you love what you’re doing.”

“Besides, the money’s good.”

“I’d be bored if I just sat around the house.”

I’ve never said that last one. That’s what the Mad Schemes are for, to make sure that you’re not just sitting around the house. Which I was not doing on April 3, the day of the Emerald City Bike Ride.

Express lane
Riding on the I-5 express lanes

Sponsored by the Cascade Bike Club, the ride took thousands of pedal pushers onto the deck of the new Highway 520 bridge before it opened to motorized traffic. The ride continued onto the Interstate 5 express lanes to a food stop at the Hing Hay Park in Seattle’s International District. Then the ride introduced me to the I-90 Bike Trail. How did I miss that one?

Then back to the start at the University of Washington. About 20 miles with Jerry and Wendy, which was very enjoyable.

On Saturday, April 16, I was with Dr. Tim to do the Tulip Pedal out of La Conner, WA. But we stayed at his lake cabin the night before, and in the morning the sun had turned the lake into a big, beautiful jewel shining through the kitchen windows and Tim’s waffles were delicious with maple syrup. So the start was late and the end had to come soon to accommodate Tim’s 2 p.m. tee time. We dropped from the 40-some mile to the family ride and neither odometer came up with the mileage for that wienie ride. We probably didn’t even ride off the butter smeared on the morning waffles.

A great day, but also an early sign that my training for the Seattle to Portland ride was not on a path to make my sister proud. And she will be here soon for the STP and I’ll be lucky to stay in the same county with her. More on that later.

Australia vs. Scotland the match of the RWC tournament

NZ with ball
Off they go again. The New Zealand All Blacks cut through the Australia defense in the Rugby World Cup Final. One thing that struck me as I edited my photos from this match: Richie McCaw, the New Zealand captain, is in almost all of them, always around the ball. He is reaching over an Aussie player in this picture, looking up at the ball carrier.

Before we left London, Kathy asked if going to the Rugby World Cup measured up to all my expectations — a question that surprised me since I thought the giddy smile on my face for eight weeks made my delight obvious.

Let me count the way, m’lady. Thirteen international rugby matches. Theater seats for London and Stratford-upon-Avon shows. Hiking the hills, punting the river, browsing through every sort of attraction covering history, art, religion, architecture and others realms of human achievement.

Yes, a definite success and then some.

Then we decided over a restaurant meal to break it down: list the top five favorite things we did while in England. We both ticked off five before the waiter got the first glass of water to the table. We were approaching more than 10 favorites apiece before our order was taken.

In keeping within the rules of naming only five, I tried to do categories, so that one of my five choices was “the rugby games,” another was “Oxford colleges,” another “plays.” Cheater, cheater, Kathy protested.

My answer to this was to offer to list five choices within each category, and of course I started with the rugby games I saw. My five favorites:

  1. Scotland vs. Australia in the quarter final: If you take the measure of excitement generated in a game by how many times the lead changes, this match goes right to the top of the list. Four lead changes. Australia took an early lead, but Scotland took over for most of the first half and was ahead by one point at the break, 16-15. The teams were never more than eight points apart and most of the time were within three points of each other. Australia got up early in the second half until Scotland climbed back up to a 34-32 lead with under seven minutes to go in the game. Then came the bad call from the ref, a three-point penalty kick by Australia with less than two minutes left and that was the end of the tournament for Scotland.
  2. New Zealand vs. Australia in the final: How can the culminating game of the tournament not be No. 1 on this list? It probably would be if the Scotland-Australia match hadn’t been one that had me jumping out of my seat and endangering my laptop on the media table in front of me. The final threatened to be a boring, let’s-play-it-safe, penalty- kicking affair through most of the first half. It wasn’t until the clock had ticked off more than 38 minutes that New Zealand put together a thriller try from the back of a loose ruck with Aaron Smith getting two touches and then skipping a pass to “he’s everywhere!” Richie McCaw, who made one more pass to put Nehe Milner-Skudder in for the score. The All Blacks got up 21-3 and it was starting to look like a rout until Australia put together two converted tries and pulled within four points. All Black Dan Carter stomped on the Aussie momentum with a drop goal at 69 minutes. Every winning team needs a player who can perform this score-from-anywhere-inside-the-50 tactic. Nothing is so soul-killing for a team to be scored against this way. And Carter wasn’t done. He added a penalty kick at 73 minutes and all that was left to complete the game was a mishandle by Australia, kicked ahead by Ben Smith and a bounce up into the hands of Beauden Barrett for one more New Zealand score and a conversion by Carter. 34-17 All Blacks.
  3. The other quarterfinal — South Africa vs. Wales: Another close one. Most of the scoring came on penalty kicks, but the tries turned the fortunes of the game for both Wales and the Republic of South Africa. It went like this: 3-0 RSA, 6-0 RSA, 6-3 RSA, 9-3 RSA, 10-9 Wales (nothing like seven points from a converted try to get you back in the game), 12-10 RSA, 13-12 Wales (drop goal by Dan Biggar gave the Welsh the halftime lead), 16-12 Wales, 16-15 Wales, 18-16 RSA, 19-18 Wales, 23-19 RSA (nothing like five points from a try to get you the win). RSA 23, Wales 19.
  4. Canada vs. Italy: Canada got up 10-0 to start the game, which included a try by DTH van der Merwe, who scored in all four of Canada’s losses. Owen Slot, chief rugby correspondent for The London Times, named him to his all-tournament team this week saying “his try-a-game tally showed consistency and the try he started and finished against Italy was outstanding.” Yeah-yeah, as the English say when in agreement. Too bad Canada couldn’t finish one more of some great movements. That would have given them at least a tie. But Italy won, 23-18.
  5. Canada vs. Romania: Canada again? Yep. For an exciting game, it’s hard to beat a 15-point comeback. Just too bad that it was Romania coming back for a 17-15 win. You can’t look away from the train wreck and you don’t want it to happen, but you have say afterwards that it was exciting.

    The All Blacks spread the field in defense, and Australia seldom got through it.
    The All Blacks spread the field in defense, and Australia seldom got through it. And once again, McCaw is right there, in front of the tackle being made by Brodie Retallick (No. 4)

Fulfilling promise of U.S. rugby could start today with win over Japan

Today would be a good day to start on fulfilling the promise of U.S. rugby.

With the last game the Eagles will play in the Rugby World Cup 2015 only a few hours away, it’s worth taking a further look at what the Eagles coaching staff has said about the future of the game in the United States.

Mike Tolkin
Mike Tolkin (USA Rugby photo)

After the 64-0 loss to South Africa on Wednesday, head coach Mike Tolkin said, “At this World Cup you don’t get any 80, 90, or 100-point scores. They (players) played against a full Springboks side. In four years’ time it will be really interesting to see what happens. It would have been interesting to see what a full (USA) side would have done against the Springboks.”

No one at the post-game media conference followed up on what Tolkin meant by a “full” side. The players he rested for today’s game against Japan? The players that Tolkin sees in the future?

And he does see better U.S. sides in the future, as does the rest of his coaching staff.

Before the game against the Springboks, Chris O’Brien was quoted on the Rugby World Cup media site saying the USA would become more powerful in future World Cups. The kicking and special teams coach said, “I think we’ve competed already at a higher level than we have at previous World Cups. The wins and losses don’t show it but we’ve become a better rugby nation, that’s shown through the first half against Scotland and Samoa.

Chris O'Brien (USA Rugby photo)
Chris O’Brien
(USA Rugby photo)

Absolutely the game is growing. It’s the fastest growing sport in the country right now and you’re seeing that. When we travel we see kids playing. They start at five or six years old. You’ll see in the next two World Cups where that’s really going to show.”

O’Brien went on to talk about something that could provide a big boost to the game in America: Sevens in next summer’s Olympics. Assuming it gets prime time television coverage, it could spur more interest in the game, especially when the rest of America finds out their country has been the defending rugby Olympic champions for 90 years.

O’Brien led up to the sevens game in his answer to whether professional rugby will develop in the U.S.:

“I honestly can’t answer that. I’ve heard about it for the last 15, 20 years but it hasn’t happened; there’s always talk. In the States all of our big sports pay so much money. In one sense I can get an NFL player to come and play rugby, but it’s so hard to teach the sport and they want something. They’re used to being in a different environment so it’s pretty tough. That’s why it’s building the foundations from youth all the way up and getting these guys through.

“The dream of an American is to play in the NFL, the NBA, major league baseball. Now you also want to be an Olympian. You can teach someone sevens (rugby) quicker than 15s.”

Probably all this talk about how good it will be in future World Cups won’t satisfy those who have been hearing it for so long. And a reduction in runaway scores from 100 points down to 64 seems like being on a nearly never-ending diet before reaching the goal of a win or two.

But a win today in Gloucester would help make believable something Lou Stanfill, a Seattle Saracen player who has more than 50 caps for the U.S., said earlier this week:

“The direction things are going, future World Cups hold huge amounts of promise for us and America intends to fulfill that promise.”

Today would be a good time to start.

Canada leads Romania at half, 8-0

Kickoff of the Canada-Romania game in the Rugby World Cup.

You know those big white wrapped bales of hay? Bruce and I were squeezed in between two of them for the Canada-Romania game in the Rugby World Cup.

I’d say that the two pseudo sumos on either side of us were the two largest people n the Leicester Stadium except that there had to be two like them on the other side to keep the stadium from tipping over

I’ve been more comfortable as a hooker at the bottom of a collapsed scrum.

And the guy behind me has obviously been deprived of human contact and was trying to make up for it by pressing his knee into my back. At least I hope it was his knee.

One more thing: The Romanians are the slowest team to ever walk a pitch, which is what they do to every lineout as their trainers run out with water bottles.

I’m hoping Canada annihilates them in the second half. The Canucks are ahead 8-0 at half.

Sorry, there should be no cheering in the press box. Wait. I’m not in my comfortable press seat with a table for my laptop.

I’m so spoiled.

But I’m taking sides and also hoping Mr. Blimpy can’t waddle back up to his seat.

Four Seattle Saracens to start for U.S. against South Africa

Four Seattle Saracen rugby players will play for the United States against South Africa in Wednesday’s Rugby World Cup game in London.

Matt Trouville
Matt Trouville
Louis Stanfill
Louis Stanfill

Louis Stanfill and Matt Trouville, who play second row for the Saracens, will take those positions for the United States Eagles, who are looking for their first win in the international tournament. Stanfill and Trouville make their first tournament start in the game at The Stadium in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London.

Olive Kilifi will also play in the forwards while Shalom Suniula  will be in the backs.

Suniula, at stand-off, will pair with Niku Kruger at scrum half.

“Niku and Shalom are a dynamic pair who have been playing within our system all year and know it well,” said Mike Tolkin, U.S. head coach.

The South African team showed its vulnerability in the first weekend of the tournament, suffering an upset loss to Japan. Since then the Springboks have gone on to beat Samoa and Scotland, the second place team in Pool B.

Shalom Suniula
Shalom Suniula

The United States has lost to Samoa and Scotland and will play Japan on Sunday, Oct. 11.

The Pool B winner and runner-up will play against Australia, who eliminated England from advancing on Saturday, and Wales, who also beat England, the first host nation for the Rugby World Cup to fail to advance through preliminary play.

Olive Kilifi
Olive Kilifi

According to USA Rugby, qualification for the knockout rounds from Pool B is still up for grabs. The Eagles need two bonus-point victories – as well as a non-bonus-point loss for Scotland in its final matchup with Samoa – to have a shot at progressing to the quarterfinals. Bonus points are awarded to teams that score four tries in a win.

With a third-place finish in Pool B, the U.S. could earn automatic qualification to Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan.

(Photos from USA Rugby)

U.S. coach frustrated by team’s second-half effort

Mike Tolkin, head coach of the U.S. rugby team, didn’t like the Eagles’ second-half performance in their loss Sunday to Scotland.

Speaking at the post-game media conference, Tolkin blamed the failure to sustain a winning first-half effort on poor lineout play, too many penalties and Scotland’s ability to keep the U.S. from pursuing the planned approach to the rest of the game.

Chris Wyles, the U.S. captain, told the media he didn’t think Tolkin’s assessment was too harsh.

Second-half letdown isn’t new to the Eagles. The U.S. stood 14-8 behind at the half against Samoa in its first game in the Rugby World Cup before giving up 11 points in the second half and only scoring eight more in the eventual 25-16 loss.

So what is it that leads to second-half letdowns? Tolkin blamed it on the lack of professional experience on the part of many U.S. players.

“Without professional play in the U.S., players don’t get those week-to-week tough games to harden them,” Tolkin said.

Which raises the question of how U.S. players can get the kind of professional play that Tolkin is talking about. The formation of a professional league within the U.S. seems a daunting task.

Where would the games be played? To collect admissions, control of the gate is needed, but most U.S. rugby games are played on open fields. So stadiums are needed. Does that mean playing on the narrow fields of American football stadiums?

Building stadiums for rugby seems an unlikely financial event at this time although some clubs are beginning to secure their own grounds. The Glendale, Colo., Raptors and Atlanta Old White come to mind.

Absent professional play in the U.S., prospective Eagles will continue to find it in other lands, where they compete for spots with players from Pacific Island nations.

Even if Tolkin had his choice of 15 players from the top clubs in Europe, Australia, South Africa or New Zealand, he would have the problem of getting them all on the same field enough times for them to jell as a unit. Another daunting task given the competing professional schedules and the practice needs in the run-up to the World Cup.

There’s still South Africa and Japan to play in this World Cup, but it’s hard not to look ahead to 2019 when the World Cup is in Japan. For now, it looks like developing players in the States and serving as a farm system for professional leagues in other countries may be the U.S. best hope for making it through pool play in a World Cup, which isn’t going to happen this time around despite Tolkin’s statement Sunday that the Eagles still intend to win in the two remaining games in Pool B.

In the first half, aggressive tackling by the U.S. caused several mishandles by the Scotland team.
In the first half, aggressive tackling by the U.S. caused several mishandles by the Scotland team.

Brighton, England: Fun, fun, fun in the sun, sun, sun

Brighton looked like Party Town UK this past weekend with two Rugby World Cup games, the Fiery Food Festival, the Costume Games and the well-timed Japan Festival.

A Japan rugby fan on a Brighton street.
A Japan rugby fan on a Brighton street.

The sun shone bright, the Japan rugby team pulled off the biggest rugby upset ever — at Brighton Community Stadium no less — and many costumed people showed up as their alter egos or maybe just as their fun-loving selves. And there was dancing, dancing in the streets.

Many hen and stag parties for prospective brides and grooms, and there was a bit of drinking. OK, there was a lot of drinking.

Our hotel was next to the famous Brighton Pier with its carnival rides, arcades and foods worthy of any state-fair midway.

If all the World Cup venues can deliver this kind of weather and this kind of atmosphere, the next six weeks are going to be fun, fun, fun til Delta takes our luggage away — and us with it.

The Foreign Legion, or an approximation of it, showed up at our hotel bar.
The Foreign Legion, or an approximation of it, showed up at our hotel bar.

USA, land of pretend world championships

Hard to argue with the summary of the USA rugby effort in The London Times Rugby World Cup guide this past Thursday.

The world, it said, has been waiting forever for the game in America to “harness the big hitters brought up on American football and handlers coming in from basketball.” Then United States rugby could challenge anyone.

But in the meantime, The Times said, this RWC is most likely to “make America realize that sport does not start and end with pretend world championships in American football and baseball.”

The U.S. challenge to get some positive notice on the world rugby stage starts in a few hours as the Eagles take on Samoa at Brighton Stadium.

Not sure how much notice a win will bring, given this question raised by an English fan I talked to yesterday: “How does it feel to be an underdog to a country with a population of less than 200,000?”

But a loss would once again keep the world on hold waiting for the U.S. to answer.