Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the main event!!! Other than the engagement (of course), I can easily say this was the highlight of my trip. The Palio di Siena was a little over a minute of excitement, adrenaline rush, and sheer wonder at a historic event that hasn’t changed in centuries. And oh boy, the horse and riders really put on a show this year. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
The day before the Palio, Matt and I awoke at the crack of dawn to make the five minute trek down the main street to the Piazza so we could get a good spot for one of the trial races. By “a good spot,” I mean crushed up against a rail that puts you inches from the high-speed and unpredictable animal that is a racehorse. For just a trial race the square was packed with people; this was one of a few chances the contrade would have to see their mighty warrior in full glory before the big race. For us, it was the first time we would see a preview of what was in store the next night.
While watching the trial race, we observed just how the start is done – we’d read up on this aspect of the race, but were still intrigued. Two huge ropes are pulled tight across the track. The first rope in the front is connected to a system that controls the drop of the rope – this is where 9 of the horses will line up and these horses are drawn in random order. The 10th horse drawn will enter the roped area last – but here is where it gets tricky. The second rope is pulled tight behind the front rope, a little further than the length of a horse away; however, it does not extend fully to the other side of the track. A space just wide enough for the 10th horse to run through is left open. After the first 9 horses have lined up, the 10th horse will come racing full-speed-ahead and when he breaks the plane of the back rope, the front rope will drop and the race takes off.
This is what we learned from the trial race:
1. There can be a lot of false starts. If the timing isn’t quite right with the 10th horse and the start of the race, they have to do it again…and again, and again. Also, the 10th horse won’t enter unless all 9 horses are lined up in an order he (the jockey) deems acceptable. The horses get antsy waiting, and if he takes too long, they’ll exit the start, regroup, and line up again. This can happen multiple times (our guide said that one year, the race was almost postponed to the next day because the start took so long, that darkness nearly made the racing conditions impossible).
2. Subterfuge is common between the districts. Basically, each contrade has allies with other districts, but they also have enemies. For example, Torre (Tower) is enemy to both Onda (Wave) and Oca (Goose). It is the only contrade to have two enemies, but many of the others have at least one. Since Torre was not racing, but Onda was, there could be a good chance that Torre may pay the district riding atop the 10th horse to enter the ropes when Onda is in a bad position (for example, not completely alert) – and when I say pay, I mean a lot of money. Or, they could pay another district that doesn’t look like they have a shot at winning to hinder Onda’s ride by whipping the rider or horse, running them tight around a turn, etc.
3. There is a strong chance that a crash will happen. The second turn of the race is extremely sharp, so much so that it is the only part of the track without grandstands. In their place are bed mattresses meant to soften the blow if a horse and jockey can’t make the turn. This has been heavily debated among animal rights activists, however the residents of Siena are unwilling to change a centuries-old tradition.
At the end of the trial race, a lovely, old Italian man who had noticed my enthusiasm and excitement for his district – Selva, with whom we’d be having dinner with that night – grabbed my arm and in broken English insisted I follow him. I grabbed Matt and with the rest of the Selva district, we followed the horse and jockey to a private area. Thanks to this man, we were able to see a custom that our guide said is usually reserved for contrade members only: we watched as the horse (named Mississippi) was washed, brushed and walked around a small paddock. We were even allowed to pet Mississippi!
The next day, the day of the race, we were given an even more unique opportunity. Our guide used her negotiation skills to get us into the blessing of the horse. Normally another custom reserved for contrade members only, the blessing of the horse occurs inside the district’s church. Before the horse was walked in, everyone was instructed to turn off the flash on their cameras and hush (for obvious reasons). Mississippi was brought in, the priest said some things in Italian, yelled Mississippi really loudly at one point (almost made me giggle), and then silence. During this silence, everyone waited for Mississippi to, well, “do his business.” The superstition is that if the horse poops in the church, he’s going to win the race. Alas, constipation held out and the Selva district left the church slightly disappointed.
And with all of that build-up, I bring you the race itself. Since the logistics of the race have been covered, I’ll jump right into it. First, our seats were incredible; cramped, but incredible. Matt secured balcony seats sold by a store front located on the start/finish line. Thank goodness for these seats, too, because we watched as a flow of people streamed into the center of the Piazza, non-stop, until the start of the race. After about two hours of parade and the presentation of the Palio – which is actually a large banner that the winning district takes home, painted by a local artist, and thus the namesake for the race – the horse and jockeys made their way out. For a tense 15 minutes they lined up, only for the 10th horse to wait too long and cause them to do it all again. About the 4th time I whispered to Matt, “I wonder whose paying him?”
Finally, finally, the 10th horse came barrelling by the back rope, the front rope dropped, a loud canon sounded, and they were off. They tore around the first turn with the crowd screaming for their respective contrade. However, remember that second turn I mentioned earlier? The one with the mattresses attached to the wall? Well, it was a good thing it was padded, because one horse caused a six horse pile-up. Jockeys were thrown from the backs (did I mention they ride bareback?) and horse after horse tumbled to the ground. Only four horses with jockeys made it out of the mess and as they continued on in their pursuit of victory, the medics streamed onto the track to carry off the injured jockeys. The fallen horses hopped back up and continued running – it is the nature of a horse, and because of this, the winning contrade can be a horse with no rider. Matt and I screamed and yelled from our balcony for the Selva district, and until the end, it looked like he might win. Alas, Valdimontone (Valley of the Ram) came across by a nose to seal the win. With another boom of the canon, the race was over.
We’re not done, though! Before the horse and rider even crossed the finish line, spectators from the Montone (just Ram for short) contrade came streaming from the stands onto the track. Yelling, shouting, fists pumping in the air, joy like I’ve never seen wide on their face. One man was nearly trampled by a riderless horse – he only crawled out of the way just in time. We quickly learned that Montone hadn’t won a Palio, July or August, since 1990 – 22 years! Imagine living, breathing, bleeding for your district for 22 years before securing this victory. For some, it would be the first of their lifetime. In a matter of minutes the track was packed. Spectators scaled the wall to retrieve the Palio. Girls sobbed with joy – I even saw one on her knees, kissing the dirt, tears streaming down her face. The instantaneous madness was an adrenaline rush – I was shaking, eyes wide, mouth open. Matt and I couldn’t quite believe what we were witnessing.
Following the race, Siena was mayhem. Celebrations began at once, while depressing defeat permeated throughout the other districts. Matt and I escaped back to the hotel for a pre-dinner drink to both calm the adrenaline rush and to avoid the crush of people. As we recounted the events of the last 3 hours, we were both stunned and exuberant – stunned at the sheer madness and exuberant over the fact that we got to be a part of it all. While we’ve been so lucky to go to all kinds of unique and exciting horse races, this will go down as the most heart-stopping. If you can ever get to Siena for a Palio, I promise you will not be disappointed!