At the World's Wildest Horse Race

Can't stay away from Palio, Siena's bareback passion play.

By Steve Burgess 10 Jul 2009 |

The Tyee's Steve Burgess is sending notes like this from Europe until he returns to resume writing about film every other week.

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Tradition, custom, vendetta.

Fighting has broken out in Siena's Piazza del Campo. Girly fighting too, by the look of it. From across the piazza all you can see are flailing arms at the point where two crowds of young people have met, a wild flurry of slapping and punching. I can't see the colour of the scarves each group is wearing, but someone says it looks like Tartuca versus Chiocciola, or possibly Aquila against their old enemies Pantera. The enmity is long-standing although actual fights in the public square are not generally done. The kids can't help it though -- it is Palio time again.

Twice each Sienese summer the drums roll, the blood runs hot, and schemes are hatched behind closed doors as 17 neighbourhood tribes prepare to battle for civic glory by means of a horse race. The Palio is a bareback passion play. Visitors are welcome, but make no mistake, this is no tourist pageant. If you want to go deeper, better be prepared to punch someone for wearing the wrong scarf.

This is my fifth Palio. To date I have punched no one, nor had the desire to. Nonetheless I nurture hopes that I might find a place among the faithful here, to be allowed at least a little way inside a mystery that goes back at least eight centuries. Since my initial visit in 2002, I have pledged myself to the blue and white banner of l'Onda (the Wave). Centred in the district known as Malborghetto, l'Onda is one of 17 contrade, or neighbourhood organizations, that compete in two bareback horse races, held each July 2 and August 16.

Second place is for losers

The race, three times around Siena's beautiful Piazza del Campo, is over in less than two minutes. The preparations for it are pretty much year-round. The Palio is sport, politics, religion, identity, tribe, organizing principle -- the complexity of the event will escape almost anyone who did not imbibe it with their mother's table wine. But those interested should check out the definitive book, La Terra in Piazza by Alan Dundes and Alessandro Falassi, which details the forbidding labyrinth of history, tradition, custom, and vendetta that attends every Palio and the days in between.

Enough to know for now that most of the contrade have at least one enemy among the other tribes, and the desire to see a nemesis come to grief is almost as strong as the desire for victory. Ideally that grief should come in the form of a second-place finish, which in timeless Palio tradition represents a loss. There is not much stigma attached to finishing further back. Second place brings disaster, and for your enemies, joy.

At high noon on July 29, the soaring tower known as Torre del Mangia throws only the runt of a shadow on the baking stones of the Campo. Nonetheless the square is filling up. At 1.00 P.M. they will hold La Tratta, the event that kick-starts Palio fever. La Tratta is key to the genius of the Palio. It is the lottery that decides which horse will be assigned to each of the ten contrade competing in the race three days later (the other seven contrade sit it out, but are guaranteed a spot the following July). This is not major league money ball -- the richest contrada cannot buy the best horseflesh. It's all in the breaks.

Handing out the horses

L'Onda has not been getting the breaks. Our team has not won a Palio since Bill Clinton was still getting acquainted with Monica Lewinsky.

As the horses are assigned, the best mounts are disappearing and still the name of l'Onda has not been called. Finally only two horses are left, one of them, Elfo, considered a good bet. Elfo goes to Pantera. The blue-and-white-clad Onda faithful erupt in jeers. Screwed again.

We get a horse called Insomma (Italian for "In short"). The horse has never run a Palio, a major disadvantage. The Campo on Palio day, rocking with the noise of 50,000 shouting, singing partisans, and the brutal track with its sharp corners where ten horses and their mounts bounce off each other and, frequently, the mattress-lined walls, can be daunting for any mammal. It helps to have been there before, especially since a horse that loses its rider can still win the race.

I have seen it happen. But only a veteran Palio horse is likely to keep pounding around the circuit without human aid. We have a rookie, an equine question mark. The glum Ondaioli drift back to their home base on Via Dupre. There is muttering about the steady good fortune experienced by other contrade like Istrice (Porcupine) or Drago (Dragon). No one looks happy.

By Palio eve, hopes have risen just a little. During the prove, or trial races, Insomma has gradually relaxed. As one Ondaiolo puts it: "We would have a real chance, with about nine more trial runs."

Alas, there are only a handful of chances to check out the goods before race day, with morning and evening trials each day. It is at the evening trial on the 30th that fighting breaks out in the Campo when two groups of singing partisans collide. Aquila and Pantera really don't like each other. One year, after a Palio in which Pantera had expected to do well but had underperformed, I came upon a group of young Aquilini, lined up along the border of the Pantera neighbourhood, waving Aquila flags and singing "E o subico" -- You are sewage. Enemy contrade are often neighbours, which is not only understandable but handy.

No tears for 'the Granny'

The July 1 trial run, on the eve of the actual race, is considered the most important. By 7.15 P.M. the Campo is full of singing, chanting young people dressed in their contrade scarves, tied in the latest fashion. Some even carry inflatable toys inspired by the name of their particular horse. Two years ago Onda got a horse name Jaguaro and almost immediately all the Onda kids were carrying little inflated panthers. Insomma, unfortunately, is not an inflatable concept.

Trial runs are not usually hotly contested affairs. But on this night something goes wrong. As the horses disappear from my sight round the third turn, known as the Casato, there is a thump and a shout from the crowd. Word spreads of a collision between the horses of Lupa (She Wolf) and Civetta (Owl), with Civetta's horse coming up lame and being hustled off the track. Partisan shouting gives way to a buzz of concern -- no one, not even Civetta's enemy, Leocorno (the Unicorn), wants to see an injured horse. Finally comes the good news that the animal is not fatally injured. But it will not run in tomorrow's race.

It's a devastating blow for Civetta, which holds the unwelcome title of "la Nonna" -- "the Granny" -- bestowed upon the contrada which has gone the longest time without a Palio victory. They will keep that unloved title for now.

This is Italy, let's eat

The final prova over, the crowd drains away in all directions, each stream heading towards its home street or square. Like living rooms on Christmas Eve, these neighbourhoods have been transformed. All over town the 17 contrade have set up ranks of tables for La Cena, the big Palio eve dinner. Via Giovanni Dupre, the Onda home street, is brightly lit with the contrada's signature dolphin lamps, bedecked with blue and white banners, and lined on both sides with wooden tables that seem to go winding along for a quarter mile. Of all Palio traditions this is perhaps the only one that amounts to uncomplicated fun. Eat, drink, sing, hope. "There is always hope," says Onda veteran Gianni Roggini, "tonight."

One complication looms, though. Shortly after the first course arrives, the skies open. Twelve hundred people cannot move under cover. What to do?

Suddenly waiters appear, running the length of the tables, unrolling clear plastic sheeting. Holding the plastic canopy up with our hands and a few umbrellas, we lean over our prosciutto and melon.

The rain relents, and the sheeting is tossed aside. Now my neighbours and I gamely struggle to overcome my miserable Italian and their sketchy English as they begin teaching me the songs of l'Onda. Over the years I have learned a couple of contrada hymns, both of them positive and uplifting. Every contrada has them.

But there are other songs, the type directed at the enemy -- in our case, La Torre (the Tower). Abusive, mocking, often scatological, they are the most popular songs at these social occasions. One song teaches that, should I accidentally wander into La Torre territory, I will subsequently require disinfectant. Others are blunter. A notebook is passed around as various people consult on the proper lyrics to each screed. Franco, sitting beside me, asks his mother about a particular curse. Soon we can all sing together, to a lovely lilting melody, that La Torre is the contrada of shit.

Forrest Gump was here

Palio day itself is more of a grind. There are ways to get a great seat, none of them simple. One is to spend 200 or 300 Euros for a spot in the bleachers. One is to know someone with a balcony on the square. One is to be Tom Hanks, whom I saw lounging comfortably above the mob two years ago. But for the rest of us, a good spot must be claimed by arriving in the Piazza del Campo hours ahead of time and braving heat, rain, or whatever comes. It's free. So are the stretcher rides out for those who keel over before the race. Today, thankfully, it is cloudy. More thunderstorms could postpone the race, but they hold off. Only a few people faint.

Around 5.20, the parading starts. It's a medieval spectacle reflecting an event that dates back over 800 years. Brilliant colours, lavish (and surely unbearably hot) costumes, elaborate flag-tossing, and the nervous horses themselves being led slowly around the track. Slowly is the word. Watching the contrade strut past is a marvelous spectacle but after a couple of hours you would swear they are starting to pull contrade out of Sweden.

Finally the Palio itself, the banner that is the sole material prize for the winners, is taken around in a cart pulled by white oxen. As it passes, contrade scarves are waved. It's good luck. There are other superstitions, including the Mago, a soothsayer who predicts a victor even before the horses are assigned. This year she said: Onda. It's almost the only straw we can clutch.

Politics on horseback

A cannon shot, and the horses finally emerge. It is about 7.40 P.M. The crowd does not know it, but the actual race is still more than an hour away. Starting a Palio is so complex that it's amazing it ever happens. There are no gates, just a pair of ropes. As the huge crowd goes completely silent, the all-important starting order is called out. The last horse, called the rincorsa, is key -- it starts from well behind the line. The race begins when the rincorsa rushes toward the line, the rope drops, and everyone leaps forward together.

That would be tricky enough even if everyone was working together in a spirit of cooperation. But the Palio is not just a race -- it is politics on horseback.

Ever since the horses were assigned three days earlier the various contrade -- including those not running -- have been plotting and scheming. Almost everything is legal in a Palio race. Bribes are offered and tentatively accepted, requiring the recipients to interfere with a particular horse -- blocking, crowding out, even striking another jockey with your flail. A contrada that is not running will still be trying to screw its enemies, preventing a victory for the hated rival.

It is only at the line when the order is announced that it becomes clear who can most successfully interfere with whom. Jockeys will begin making eye contact as the horses mill about, silently offering and accepting deals.

So it is perhaps no surprise that this particular Palio simply cannot get underway. Several false starts, kicking incidents, and a seemingly complete lack of will eventually have the mob howling at the riders. Even the starter is pissed. "Buon divertimento," he cracks dryly as the riders ply their tricks -- good fun, but at our expense. I have been in the Campo almost seven hours. My back is killing me. I am thirsty as hell, but too much water might lead to an urge that cannot be satisfied until the race is over. Too dangerous.

And... they're off!

It is almost 9.00 when it happens. The horses surge forward, there is no cannon shot indicating a false start. Tartuca (the Tortoise) takes the early lead. Their horse Gia del Menhir, is one of the favourites. After one lap, an Onda supporter turns to me. "Where is our horse?" she asks.

It's true. I can't see Insomma. Suddenly there he is in front of us, unmounted, being hurried off the track. Insomma seems to have come up lame. And so the waiting continues for l'Onda.

After the crazy preliminaries, this race is a bit anti-climactic, the least suspenseful of the five I have seen. Tartuca's horse leads from start to finish. More interesting is the drama behind him. On the final straightaway, Lupa's jockey cleverly allows himself to be boxed out by Oca (the Goose). Oca's reward: a second place finish. On the TV replay afterward the Tartuca jockey is mobbed by joyous supporters while briefly, in the background, I swear I see Oca's rider pursued by angry partisans. He messed up, big time.

Months of preparation, hours of waiting, over in seconds. They'll do it again August 16. Interested?

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