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A sleek black beast, small in stature but quick on the hoof, took the early lead.

Not far behind were two scraggly gray mares, followed by a white stallion with a blue number tattooed on his rear. Farther back — way back — came the stragglers: a few plodding fillies no doubt inexperienced in the ways of the track.

Urged on by fiercely competitive jockeys, the animals "raced" around the dirt course. A rambunctious crowd cheered and screamed, waving hands and flags.

This was no Kentucky Derby. Instead of thoroughbred horses, the animals in this riotous race were donkeys. The Palio degli Asini — race of donkeys — is a tradition in Alba, a town in Italy’s Piedmont region best known for white truffles and sinful chocolate.

It was obvious donkeys were not made for speed or following orders. At times some of the obstinate animals stopped dead on the track. Kicking, slapping — nothing would make them move. Distraught jockeys dismounted and pulled and tugged on the reins. More than one disgusted animal decided to turn around and head off in the opposite direction. Another stopped to eat an apple thrown onto the track. A few that did run threw their jockeys, who all rode bareback.

It was a hilarious spectacle that delighted the crowd of 5,000.

The race traces its origin to the 13th century. For years, Alba and its neighboring town, Asti, had been engaged in a turf war. On Aug. 10, 1275, the feast day of Alba’s patron saint, San Lorenzo, soldiers from Asti launched an attack, devastating orchards and vineyards around Alba’s city walls. Following a hometown tradition, the Asti warriors raced their horses around the town walls. According to legend, inside the walls the citizens of Alba raced their donkeys in response — an indication, one Web site claims, of what they thought of the conquerors and their ritual.

Through the years Asti conducted a horse race and pageant, like Siena’s world-famous palio. But, Alba’s jockeys won the Asti race so often that the hosts stopped issuing invitations to its rival. So in 1932, Alba decided to stage its own palio — with donkeys.

As in Siena, the competitors represent the different districts of the city, and their racing "silks" bear the colors and pattern of the district flag. In Alba, the jockeys — doctors, lawyers, factory workers — from the nine districts are assigned donkeys from local farms on the morning of the races. Riders race around the track twice, with the top performers from each heat pitted against each other for a final run.

In the past, competing districts often played pranks, such as giving a rival’s donkey a shot of grappa to make it sleepy. These days two veterinarians oversee and protect the animals from such shenanigans.

The races are the finale to a day of celebration, always the first Sunday in October, that begins with a huge parade through the city ending at the racetrack where those in the stands can watch the spectacle. Before the parade, there are chicken races for more laughs.

During the parade some 1,000 costumed participants march to the sounds of drums. Citizens from each town district dressed as princesses and lords, peasants and friars, warriors in armor and sack-clothed beggars, represent scenes of life during medieval times. The star attraction of the parade are the sbandieratori, athletic flag wavers and throwers who hurl the colorful banners as high as the town’s medieval rooftops. The flags soar in the air in intricately synchronized patterns.

It’s an impressive show, but it’s the donkeys that draw the crowds and inflame the passions. Spectators were thrilled last week with the victory of Acciuga — "Anchovy" in English — that slim black arrow of a beast who held on to the lead and claimed victory for his jockey, Sergio Giordino, and the district of Santa Rosalia.

As one spectator remarked of the speedy donkey, "He must have been on steroids."

Photojournalist Leah Larkin lives in France and can be contacted through her Web site, www.leahlarkin.com , or blog address, www.provencetales.typepad.com.

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