Anything goes in Siena, Italy, during the spectacular medieval-style Corsa del Palio—the breakneck, bareback horse race held twice each year—July 2 and August 16—in the historic heart of the Tuscan city. Bribery, betting and betrayal are the order of the day, and secret negotiations and clandestine plots abound. Though accompanied by days of abandoned revelry, the colorful festival is fraught with bitter rivalries. In races past, horses have been drugged, and jockeys, professional riders brought in from outside the city, have even been kidnapped to keep them from racing.
The ancient spectacle, as much joust as race, dates to at least the 13th century and likely has its roots in Roman military training. It takes its name, Il Palio, from the Italian word for banner, which in the Middle Ages was presented as a prize in tournaments. The winner of the Palio, which is held in honor of the Virgin Mary, earns a hand-painted silk banner bearing her image.
Lady Luck and double-dealing dominate. Participation and starting positions are determined by lot, and jockeys, who are paid handsomely to ride, are free to bribe or be bribed. During the competition, ten horses, representing 10 of the 17 Sienese contrade, or neighborhoods, run clockwise three times around the 330-meter track of yellow earth ringing the Piazza del Campo, the city’s main square. Horses wear only bridles, otherwise racing nudi (naked). Jockeys, often the butteri, or cowboys, of the Maremma area of southwest Tuscany, boast the costumes and colors of their respective contrade and brandish oxhide whips. The rules of the race allow them to whip their own horse or a competing horse or rider. There is only one restriction: a jockey can’t grab the reins of another horse.
The passion that drives the Palio is the intense rivalry among Siena’s 17 contrade. Each bears the name of an animal or object—Porcupine, Panther, Unicorn, Shell—and has its own seat of government, church, social club, patron saint and museum, where Palio banners won in the past are displayed. Each contrada, too, has its own alliances and enmities with its neighbors.
Ten contrade are chosen by lot to ride in the July Palio. The other seven, plus three of the July competitors, also determined by lot, run in the August race. Winners, whose only prize is a banner, must pay dearly for their victory—hundreds of thousands of dollars to cement alliances and buy loyalty. The race is unique in other ways as well. Though there is no official betting, millions of lire change hands. The horse that comes in second is considered a bigger loser than the last-place finisher, and the contrada that is the traditional enemy of the winner is deemed a loser even if it didn’t have a horse in the race.
The Palio culminates months of preparation and four days of events that include preliminary trials, open-air feasts and a medieval pageant and parade, complete with drums, floats, flag twirlers and an ox-drawn war chariot. The track of compacted yellow earth goes down in the piazza four days before the race, and that very night jockeys try out potential mounts by the light of the moon. Lots are drawn the next day to select participants. A ritual of trials allows the captains of the competing contrade to select ten evenly matched horses for the race. After the health of the horses is certified, lots are drawn to decide which contrada each will represent. Once assigned to a contrada, a horse cannot be replaced. If a mount falls ill or even dies, its contrada is out of luck, and out of the race.
At last year’s August Palio, spectators screamed and whistles blared as officials tried to line up the horses at the starting rope. Nine of the horses were penned between two ropes, and jockeys struck last-minute bargains with one another as their mounts pawed the ground. At the starting signal, the tenth horse galloped up from behind, and the race was on.
Amid a flurry of banners and a cloud of dust each year, the horses tear down the track. Jockeys maneuver and wield their whips. A few lose their mounts. But all is not lost. A riderless horse can still win. In 90 seconds, it’s over.
At the banquet following the Drago (Dragon) contrada’s victory last August, revelers consumed 660 pounds of ravioli, 550 pounds of artichokes, 3,500 sausages and 6,500 tarts. The winning horse occupied a place of honor behind the head table.