Horse-Racing Italian Style

Photo: Roberto Vicario

One of the special wonders of travelling through Italy is the rare opportunity of stepping through a historical portal. In Siena, a Tuscan hill town, the Il Palio di Siena Horse Race upholds centuries’ old traditions and rivalries.

In 1590, the Grand Duke of Tuscany outlawed bullfighting. As a substitute, a variety of races followed and today mixed breed horses compete for coveted honours.

Originally, Siena was divided into military districts called contradas. Historically, these neighborhoods held intense grudges, celebrated holidays and festivals independently of each other, and at one time, deterred citizens from marriage outside of one’s own contrada.

Photo: wpopp

Today, 17 of these contradas or city wards remain, each with its own museum containing winning scarves (palio), symbolic standards and colours  and even locks of mane hair from winning horses.

Contrada rivalry also continues to be fierce. Each district works all year to plan and host their four-day celebration. Committees raise money, repair costumes and plot strategic alliances to either win the race or cause a rival contrada to lose.

With the event eld annually,on July 2 and August 16, the winning contrada is entitled to bragging rights until next year’s race. An air of pride, wine, song, and colourful banners tend to intensify neighbourhood rivalries. Days before the Il Palio race, neighbors are hesitant to cross into other contradas.

The night before the big event, golden street lanterns brightly glow as neighbors stroll to their “rehearsal” celebratory dinner. Each contrada lays out long tables in its biggest piazza and all Siena dines al fresco, each in its separate corner. Racing politics and intrigue are as much a part of the evening as the wine and abundant food.

Photo: Roberto Vicario

Of the 17 contrades, only 10 compete in the event. The excluded seven race the next time with a lottery determining the final three entries. Special golden dirt is brought in and laid in the narrow, tight turns of the Piazza del Campo “racetrack.” On race day, the horses receive a priest’s blessing in a tiny, people-packed chapel filled with clouds of incense.

After, the crowds rush to the piazza. Scarves and hats proudly display contrada colours and compete with baseball hats and sunglasses. Accompanied by whistles and boos, groups within the crowd burst into neighborhood songs.

Anticipation grows as flag bearers in medieval costume lead in magnificent pageants. Accompanied by an armor-clad duke and flag throwers, each contrada delegation marches to drum beats with pages carrying its colors and emblems. Modern rivalry depicted in medieval style. The parade ends when four white oxen pulling a war chariot bearing the previous winning palio enters the piazza.

Finally, it is time for the absolute pandemonium of the race. The horses line up between two cords, their order selected by lottery. Cannons blast and, inevitably, there is a false start. Then somewhat unexpectedly, the wild bareback race begins.

Photo: Roberto Vicario

Jockeys dressed in appropriate colours jostle for position and advantage on the dangerous, steeply canted track. The 90-second race covers treacherous turns over the thick layer of golden dirt. The winner is the first horse across the finish line, whether or not the jockey is still aboard. The loser is the second place horse, not the last.

Of course, the crowd goes wild and spills onto the track. Shouting matches break out. Winners gloat and losers berate their jockeys and horses. The victor receives a painted silk banner and the celebration carries on for the rest of the month for the champion ward. The festival itself finishes with yet another al fresco banquet. After retreating to their own contrada, it’s already time to start plotting for the next race.

If you are going to attend the race, you might want to retire from the pandemonium to your own Italy private luxury villa, with pool to cool off and chef to treat you to some local delicacies.


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