The horse race that’s a religion
Ask anyone from Siena whether the Palio or the soccer World Cup is more important and they will look at you with astonishment: “The World Cup is everybody’s business, the Palio is Siena’s own.”
Four days of ceremonies, negotiations and nervous tension precede the Palio in Siena, but then, finally, this most dramatic and impassioned of horses races is ready to get underway.
Siena hosts two Palios each year, one in July and the other in August. Of the two, the August race is the most coveted as the result gives bragging rights to the victorious contrada (the word for neighborhood in Siena, with city residents associating themselves with the contrada in which they were born) for a whole year.
In the buildup to the race, ten contrade have been drawn a horse in an elaborate ceremony and have struck a deal with the jockey that they want to ride for them. On race day, adrenalin levels are high and the crowd can barely control itself. The jockeys try to keep their horses in line, as ordered by the Mossiere, the only judge. Horses kick, spin around, break out and come back in a strategic dance that makes no sense to us outsiders.
A few false starts are each cancelled by a mortar shot, then finally, after more than an hour of teasing, building everyone’s tensions up to almost unbearable levels, the horses are let loose. On the very first lap, a jockey falls at the tight San Martino bend. The jockeys are riding with no stirrups or saddles, and so it’s no surprise to see yet another go down on the second lap, the riderless horses staying in the race.
The battle for victory peaks in the final circuit, the jockeys using their ox-sinew whips on their steeds or each other, while spectators invade the track as they pass for the last time. The Contrada of the Goose and the Contrada of the Shell run neck and neck over the last few yards until, after only two minutes, it’s over.
“Who won?” someone shouts in my ear. How should I know? People rush the track like an invading army, some yelling with joy, others clinging to each other and weeping in despair.
The horses have been taken away but the result is still not clear, competing rumors being shouted back and forth in a bedlam of noise, songs and taunts. Excited supporters converge on the Palio itself. This is the much sought-after prize that the race takes its name from, a large richly decorated, hand-painted silk cloth bearing the image of the Madonna.
At last the formal signal comes from the town hall as the judges display the winner’s flag; it is the green of Oca, the Goose. Distraught contradaioli of the Shell hold their heads in their hands in disbelief. The victorious contrada heads for the Duomo to offer a “Te Deum” or prayer of thanks as Siena’s streets fill with revellers proudly sporting their colors.
The winning jockey – and horse – will be feted by their happy contrada until the early hours, their fame assured for ever. Those who won have a year to celebrate. Those who lost have the same time to plot their revenge.