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A rider sets off on the 2.5 mile procession to the start of the May 3rd Ox Cart Race.

The Ox Races of Molise

The Molise towns of Ururi, Portocannone and San Martino, still celebrate the Feast of the Wooden Cross of Jesus with ox cart races. The Feast commemorates the date of May 3, 326, the day that Saint Helena discovered the Cross of Christ in Jerusalem. Although Pope John XXIII removed the May 3rd Feast in 1960, choosing instead to celebrate September 14 as the date of the consecration of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Constantinople, the former Holy Day is celebrated in some places, such as in lower Molise.

In the small town of Ururi, on the day of the race, the carts are taken to the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie where the blessing of the animals takes place. These are not ordinary oxen. They have been bred for strength and endurance. Normal farm work is not part of their routine and they spend the entire year waiting for that one glorious day in early May to show their speed.

Following the blessing, the wagons, followed by hundreds of supporters, proceed two and a half miles to the starting line. They are staged roughly 60 feet behind one another, according to their finishing positions from the prior year’s race. The countdown begins and then the thunderous race begins. Massive oxen, two by two, run full tilt down the county lane, then into the town and through the narrow streets. So confined are some of the spaces that the lead oxen team must take a separate, slightly longer path to the finish line at Santa Maria Delle Grazie. With people crowded along the streets or on balconies in town, one would think that it is the Kentucky Derby being run. But this is not Churchill Downs, it is the tiny town of Ururi, yet the pride in this event is no less passionate. The winner is, of course, the first to arrive at the Church. The next day the winning cart has the honor of carrying the sacred relic of the Cross of Jesus through the streets of the town…and will also start first at the next year’s event.