CARAVACA DE LA CRUZ, Spain (AP) — The chosen few get out of bed at dawn on May 2 to start preparations for what is the most important date in the calendar in the town of Caravaca de la Cruz, in southeastern Spain.
Amid yawns, but with plenty of enthusiasm, they take their time plaiting the mane and tail of their horse. Then they toss over it a caparison, or cloak, which has been embroidered by hand over the previous year.
These are the men picked to represent their troupe in the annual fiesta called “Los Caballos del Vino,” usually translated as the Running of the Wine Horses.
“For a lot of people the Running of the Wine Horses is one day a year. For me, it’s all 365 days,” says Antonio Torres, as he braids Rociero, a Spanish pure breed.
At 7 a.m., fires are lighted to announce to locals and tourists that the festivities are about to begin.
Thousands of people gather on the slopes of the town’s Knights Templar castle, where the tradition is played out.
Nobody knows how much of the story behind the event is fact, how much myth.
Part of the mixed Moorish and Christian celebrations that are so typical of Spain, the Running of the Wine Horses recalls the perilous horse ride with which the Templars purportedly broke the Muslim siege of the local castle by bringing in provisions, in the middle of the 13th century.
The rules of the modern competition are simple. Four men in black pants, white shirts and red scarves run alongside their horse, hanging onto it for dear life as it gallops up the steep dirt road to the castle, covering 80 meters (88 yards) as crowds press in and then part to make way.
Some men trip and fall, others can’t keep up with the sprint. Some horses are jumpy and hard to control. Some of the young men in the race are gripped by nerves. Minor injuries are not uncommon.
Standing on a platform with a microphone in hand, Jose Antonio “Zaram” — known as the voice of the “Caballos del Vino” — announces to the crowd “Caballo en carrera” (Horse on the track).
All four men have to reach the top to stand a chance of winning the title and the admiration of the people. Participating in the event is a family tradition, and troupes are longtime rivals.
“Coming first is something that is impossible to put into words. It’s a feeling that anyone from Caravaca de la Cruz dreams of from a young age,” says Juan Antonio Sánchez, a member of the “Terry” troupe alongside Torres.
There are 58 runs this year, and it is the penultimate one that produces the winner: the “Calimocho” troupe with its mare Bulería.