UPDATED AGAIN: Excitement at the Palio!

Tonight was the running of the Palio, the famous, age-old horse race in Siena, Italy. Every year, twice a year, for hundreds of years, 10 of the 17 neighborhoods of Siena lay everything on the line to win this race, which lasts only 3 laps of the main city square and usually less than 90 seconds.

But the horses are chosen by lot. The jockeys – who ride bareback – are chosen by lot. The neighborhoods (called “contrade”) find most of their chances to win determined by, well… chance.

And yet the Sienese are completely passionate about this race. They organize their entire year around it, they’re utterly ecstatic when they win and they’re thoroughly despondent when they lose. And they’re even worse if their traditional “enemy” neighborhood (the “nemica”) happens
to be the one to win… That’s like adding insult to injury!

Want to see what I mean? These are my pictures from Friday, June 29th in Siena

First was the “Tratta,” or the Extraction of the Horses, in which the race officials drew by lot which horse would be assigned to which neighborhood. As you can see, a few people turned out to watch!

Everybody awaited each drawing with baited breath. People of the neighborhood kept track of every announcement on special forms handed out for the occasion, or else on scratch paper if they didn’t have one. (And the results of the drawing was the one and only thing that everybody in town was discussing all afternoon on their cellphones!)

When the contrada of the Snail (“Chiocciola”) were drawn to be the ones to race the horse Brento, the piazza exploded with joy. The residents of the neighborhood ran forward to collect their horse and lead it victoriously to its special stable (which you can see at right) for the event. Brento was one of the horses most favored to win. And Chiocciola had been feeling cocky anyway... Even prior to the Extraction, the men of the neighborhood (the “contradaioli”) had been leading their jockey to the each of the other neighborhoods and singing taunting songs in front of their headquarters. Now they were sure they’d win the big race 4 days later!

Meanwhile, in the neighborhood group we were standing in for the Extraction, the contrada of the Wave (“Onda”) were soooo disappointed, since they’d wound up drawing one of the most inexperienced horses.

But how quickly the wheel of fortune turns during the Palio! We came back to the main piazza (called the “Campo”) that evening to see the first trial race, or “Prova.” Again, as you can see, just a few people turned out to watch what in the end didn’t even count officially. Even still, against all expectations, we almost saw a real disaster there. No joke…

The one who starts the race, the “mossiere,” was unexperienced, and when he released the starting rope, apparently he didn’t do it quickly enough, and right at the start, Chiocciola's Brento tripped over the rope and fell, injuring himself, throwing his rider and knocking off two other jockeys (as you can see in my photos). But the trial race continued… and the previously despondent neighborhood of the Onda wound up winning. And previously exultant Chiocciola was nearly beside itself with grief, instead of victorious (as you can see at right) like they'd expected. How strange is Palio-fate!

Tonight, the real race was run. But Chiocciola wasn’t there. Painfully, the entire neighborhood decided to withdraw rather than risk the life of the horse (more than one of which has died during the race in previous years).

After 90 seconds and at least three other jockeys thrown, the race was won by the horse of the neighborhood of the Goose (“Oca”) by a nose over that of the Seashell (“Nicchio”), but then the city officials accidentally raced the flag of the 2nd place contrada outside the town hall by mistake. A near riot broke out between the two neighborhoods, until the ruling was corrected and Oca was officially given the win. (And that’s when the Italian national tv coverage ended. For all I know, the riot may still
be happening in Siena...That's how seriously they take the Palio there!!)

When the race is posted online, I highly recommend watching it. The passion of the Sienese over this race defies all attempts at explanation!
UPDATED: You can check out the video here!


  • The Palio della Assunta will be run in Siena on August 16th, at 1 pm EST.
  • The contrade scheduled to run are Giraffa, Leocorno, Lupa, Chiocciola, Onda, Istrice e Civetta, Bruco, Valdimontone and Drago.
  • The "tratta" or extraction of the horses will take place August 13th.
  • The 6 "prove" or the trials will be run between the 13th & the 16th.
  • The corteo storico or historical procession will feature more than 600 costumed marchers and performers, and will run for 3 hours before the race!


planettom said...

Since it's televised, is there legal (or otherwise) off-track betting on this event throughout Italy?

planettom said...

Palio: Fifteen quatloos on Gryffindor! I mean, on Giraffa!