Palio Horse Race: What's so Wild about Italy's Most Insane Festival?

The thunderous sound of hooves is barely audible over the roar of the crowd. You catch glimpses of multi-colored helmets bobbing up and down. The firm twist of reins pulls horses around treacherously steep corners. The crowds roar louder. The falter of a hoof, the slip of a jockey, the quick, sharp crack of a horse crop all add to the electrifying excitement and atmosphere that makes up the Palio horse race.  

“Take with you to the Piazza the fatalism of an ancient Greek, the paranoia of a conspiracy theorist and the violent passions of a football hooligan, and you’ll have a marvelous time.” So wrote Conde Nast’s travel writer, Steve King, when he experienced the medieval Tuscan town’s much anticipated cultural and sporting extravaganza. And, by golly is he right!

What is Il Palio di Siena?

For the uninitiated, Il Palio di Siena is one of Italy’s biggest cultural events. Were the description, although apt, to stop here, it would sell the Palio short. In brief, it is a wild, lawless, exhilarating horse race held twice annually in Siena. Ten of the town’s seventeen contrade, districts to you and I, compete for the Drappellone. This is a decorated flag, affectionately referred to as “the rag” and the prize given to the winning Contrada. In actuality, the flag is peripheral, and the real prize is a year’s worth of pride and boasting rights.

In More Detail

  • History

The Palio horse race has been held, almost unbroken, every year in the town’s beautiful Piazza del Campo since its inception in 1644. Although, it is believed that the race’s origins date as far back as the 13th century. Accounts suggest that it may have begun as a form of military training for the Roman Army. And, as time moved forward, early forms of the race involved buffalos and donkeys.

  • When is it?

Don’t bother searching, “when is the Palio horse race 2018?” because the dates are always the same. It happens twice a year on July 2 and then again, a month later on August 16.

The Palio horse race held on July 2 was the first of the two. This one's dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Legend goes that on this date a local Sienese named Provenzano Salvani discovered an image of the Virgin Mary in a house located in the Contrada della Giraffa.

The second race was not introduced until the early 18th century. And, this one, dedicated to the Assumption, coincides with the Feast of Assumption on August 16.

Surprisingly though, the Palio is a secular event despite its rather religious connections.

  • Who competes?

The Palio is no joke. This is a fiercely competitive tradition, fueled by a ferocious rivalry between the town’s many contrade (districts) that borders on the aggressive. In Siena, your Contrada has its own identity. It comes complete with its own museum, church, traditions, and banner. In short, it makes up a part of your internal DNA. It courses through your veins. You eat, sleep and breath it.

Take this for example. Such a deep rivalry exists between Contrada Dell’Aquila and Contrada Pantera that when the former beat the later, Dell’Aquila mounted a loudspeaker onto their church bell tower and mocked Pantera 24 hours a day for a month straight.

Or this. Married couples who hail from town’s different Contrade take “time off” from each other in the run-up to the race. Especially, if they both have a horse competing.

Siena is made up of seventeen Contrade, but only ten compete. Selection of which Contrada can compete works like this: every year the seven Contrade that didn’t race in the previous year face automatic selection and the remaining face a lucky dip, lottery draw.

Corteo Storico

This cultural and civic event doesn’t start and stop with the race. The Corteo Storico is a long-running tradition that predates the Palio and is part of the colorful pageantry that happens in the build-up to the race.

The Corteo Storico, which translates literally to the historical parade, is a formally choreographed, triumphant parade that celebrates ancient institutions, customs and the greatness of the Republic of Siena. The focus is generally held on the contrade who are participating in the race.

Hundreds of townsfolk, dressed in traditional medieval garb, plastic armor and wielding replica swords, axes and crossbows gather in the early afternoon. Under the instruction and guidance of the Field Marshall, they then march from the Piazza del Duomo down the Via del Duomo. Here, they pass through the Piazza Postierla and onto Via San Pietro where they then head onto Via del Casato di Sopra. Then they make their way to the Via Casato di Sotto where they join other paraders. At the first toll of the Torre del Mangia bell, the entire procession enters the Piazza del Campo.

Once in the square, flag bearers perform extravagant displays of flag waving, throwing and twirling to the sound of military drum beats and silver trumpets. The Palio Carroccio (chariot), pulled by two enormous white oxen, then makes its way into the Piazza del Campo, where it circles the square. Attached to the chariot, hoisted high and blowing in the wind for all to see is the Drappelleon.

This is a strange and stirring sight. One that when mixed with the frenzied, palpable excitement of the Piazza concocts a strangely emotional atmosphere that slips under your skin. And, you may find yourself having to wipe away a tear or two.

The Four Days

The Palio horse race is over in the blink of an eye. But, the event itself takes place over four days. The day of the race and the three before it.

  • The draw, also known as Tratta, is on the first day. This decides which of the ten of the seventeen contrade will participate in the race. This is also the day of pairing horses with riders.
  • Following three days are trail runs. There are six in total, two a day. The first in the morning and the second in the afternoon. These are important because they allow the jockeys an opportunity to familiarize themselves with their horse and the track. You can watch these trial runs provided you stand and watch in the appropriate sectioned off area.
  • The fourth day is the race.

Can you buy tickets for the Palio in Siena?

Yes, you can. But, naturally, tickets go fast. And, they cost a pretty penny. At the time of writing the only tickets available for the Palio horse race, 2018 are for the second race in August and start from € 400. You read that right € 400. Tickets give you seats to the grandstand, and arguably the best, clearest view of the race. But, far better an experience is to head into the thick of it in the Piazza’s center.

The “bullring” is the beating heart of the Palio and the best place for a taste of what the event is all about. Test your mettle and join the sweaty, heaving masses as they push, shove and jostle in anticipation. Here, you enjoy a different kind of pageantry. One of the weird, wired and wonderful variety. But, peaceful and good-natured. Groups of bare-chested men will burst out into boisterous songs that celebrate their contrade and goad others. And, when the cannon sounds, marking the beginning of the race an enormous collective intake of breath sucks the air from around you. For a split second, you feel both as if time has stopped and you are suffocating. It is a moment you will want to distill.

For those who with an aversion to crowds it is best to steer clear of this area as claustrophobia will be a serious concern.

The Race

Know this, despite the build-up, the race is short. It consists of three laps around the ⅓ of mile track that outlines the Piazza del Campo. The track itself is treacherous and consists of 8 steep, tight corners that the jockeys must navigate around at full speed. The whole thing lasts approximately 75 to 90 seconds and is over in the blink of an eye.

What lasts longer is the race’s start. Nine of the riders gather on the starting line, and the tenth decides when the race begins. He will, theatrically, pull his horse back and forward from the line, in a series of false starts until, with the sharp crack of his crop, he will charge off with the rest following, hot on his heels.

The Horses

Unlike the Pali di Asti, which uses thoroughbred horses, the magnificent beasts that participate in the Palio horse race are of mixed breeds. And, although each contrade picks their own jockey, they do not get to pick their own horse. The horses are specially selected according to a number of factors. Sitting top of the criteria, and perhaps most important, that they do not spook easily. That they can contend with the large, roaring crowds. Four days prior to the race the jockeys meet their assigned horses for the first time. It is only from this point on that they can familiarize themselves with each other.

The spills come hard, fast and heavy with many people suffering serious injury. Upwards of 50 horses have died since the 1970s. And, as a result, there has been much protesting from animal rights groups lobbying for their well-being. Although the town of Siena has heard their pleas, the effort to change much has been minimal. Padding now cushions the tracks steep, and often unforgiving corners. But, to little effect.

The Jockeys & The Drama

Bubbling beneath the Piazza del Campo horse race, and adding to its spectacular atmosphere is a nefarious world of backhand dealings, skulduggery, and bribery.

Little known is that Jockeys are hired hands, selected by each contrade and offered buckets of cash to win. But, many are opportunistic hounds, turncoats happy to throw allegiances out of the window for the right price. Elaborate stories exist of jockeys who have taken bribes in amounts of as much as € 70,000 while on the starting line to pull back at the last minute, slip from their horse or worse, interfere with the other riders. It is cutthroat and treacherous.

One year a competing horse, when tethered to a column, found distraction after a ne'er-do-well slathered the secretion of a mare on heat to its post. When it came to the race, the stallion was so aroused it could hardly get around the track let alone finish the race.

For a complete insight into the underworld of the Palio check out Cosima Spender’s documentary, Palio, which delves deep into the 2013 Palio horse race.

Tips and Suggestions

  • If you want to enjoy the show, get there early! The Palio can see crowds upwards of 40,000, so it gets busy.
  • Standing in the Piazza del Campo is free as are other areas around the periphery of the track.
  • If you want to sit in the grandstand though, you have to pay. Tickets are expensive and sell out quickly. Book well in advance if you want to do this.
  • Avoid going with children, especially if you plan on standing in the Piazza del Campo. This can be overwhelming for adults, so best to leave the kids at home.
  • You can buy drinks in the Piazza, but there are NO public toilets.
  • It is the height of summer so be sure to bring a bottle of water, wear a hat and protective sun cream.

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