The Risk Jockeys
One of Europe’s most spectacular and chaotic horse races is held in honor of the Virgin Mary. The good lady would blush, however, if she knew of the antics that take place over this no-holds-barred rush around the medieval Piazza del Campo in the picturesque Tuscan city of Sienna. Bribery, gambling, plotting, and betrayal are all par for the course in this hugely popular event that attracts thousands of spectators and pits every city district against each other and stirs up ancient bitter rivalries.
It all begins with pomp and ceremony with a parade of armored horsemen bearing medieval flags and banners through the packed streets and into the large square that is jammed with eager spectators. This event is so popular that some tenants who live overlooking the square must sign a rental contract to vacate their premises on the day in question so their landlords can rent out the balconies for a princely sum. An ox drawn war chariot bears trumpet players and drummers while the local bishop blesses each horse and jockey. There are 10 riders in all, representing the different city wards. An explosive charge is detonated as they enter the square with locals jeering from every vantage point like charged-up soccer fans. A circuit track of yellow dirt is laid around the outer rim of the plaza while padded crash barriers are set up at the most tricky corners. The multitude of people are packed tightly in the center, everybody jostling for a view of the multicolored jockeys who ride bareback and carry whips made from stretched dried bull penises.
The starting rope is dropped and off they go in a frantic helter skelter clockwise around the tight corners of the track, using their whips liberally to egg on their own horse and hit other competitors. Conventional racing rules are forgotten as the jockeys flail and hamper their fellow riders, blocking and knocking and hindering as much as they can. The tight curves see horses slide and crash into the side walls with jockeys crashing to the ground and then fleeing for cover. They go three times around the plaza while the crowd screams for their horse. One eventually edges ahead (often jockeyless but still declared a winner) and the plaza erupts in joy, acrimony, celebration, and the occasional brawl. It is all over in 90 seconds.
Il Palio is like no other race and the passion it stirs is hinged on the intense rivalry between the city district teams that go by names such as Porcupine, Panther, and Shell. Each has its own feuds and scores to settle in a race that goes back to medieval times. Alliances are made and plots laid out. Dirty tricks are not unknown, such as horses being drugged and even jockeys kidnapped. The second horse is regarded as the real loser and the district that has not won the longest is the laughing stock of the city and must bear the shameful name of granny.
The prize is a painted banner, and it is hung with pride at the huge banquet that takes place after the race. The jockey sits in place of honor at the head of the table with his fateful steed standing behind, wrapped in garlands. —CO’M
When to go: There are two races every year on July 2 and Aug 16.
Florence (75km/47 miles).
$$$ Borgo Grondaie, Strada delle Grondaie, 53100 Siena, Italy ( 39/577/332539; www.www.borgogrondaie.com). $$ Hotel More Di Cuna, Via Cassia Nord, 53014 Monteroni d’Arbia, Siena, Italy ( 39/577/385166; www.hotelmoredicuna.it).