A Horse Race in the Heart of Tuscany (Part 2)

As race day approached, I wanted to get up to speed on the culture and history of Siena. More specifically, the backstory on the Palio. So Rachel Jensen and I hunted down a small group guided tour. I told her that if there was a red umbrella involved, I was out. Rachel delivered with a walk about town for six people, plus our guide Claudia, a local resident and Palio expert.

A Horse Race in the Heart of Tuscany (Part 2)

The 17 Contradas of Siena and their emblems.

As is almost always the case, there is a lot more to the story than is glimpsed on the surface. The town of Siena has 17 distinct neighborhoods where each of the guilds from medieval times generally lived and worked. These sections of town are marked by centuries-old plaques at corners where one neighborhood bumps into the next.

Claudia is a Unicorn, from the Contrada of the Leocorno, a goldsmith’s guild. She let us know that up front. She also explained that her arch rivals are the Owls. This is serious stuff. People are fiercely loyal to their neighborhood. Each has its own church, and once baptized in the water of the community, you are that member forever. Even if you move across town. Kind of like football fans from Cleveland and Pittsburgh with the Browns and Steelers.

A Horse Race in the Heart of Tuscany (Part 2)

The corner plaques marking two Contradas.

A Horse Race in the Heart of Tuscany (Part 2)

Tortuca flags adorn the sculptor’s Contrada.

Claudia also told us that when two people of differing neighborhoods marry, it is common for the wife to go back “home” and stay with her parents during the Palio. That way she can root for her home team with her father and siblings. And there’s a good chance that mom may have gone back to Grandpa’s house to be there. These traditions and feelings run deep. Fights can, and sometimes do, break out, but usually only in the wee hours of the morning, long after I tend to close up shop – so I don’t have any firsthand knowledge about those.

The rules, or lack thereof, in the Palio are a big part of what makes this race so exciting. The jockeys are generally referred to as “mercenaries.” And they are.  It is a common practice to bribe an opponent’s jockey to throw the race. Sometimes the jockey is simply paid to position themselves as a blocker of your arch rival, preventing them from winning the race. Nothing is worse than your arch rival winning. Anyone but them.

Therefore, each Contrada assigns bodyguards to watch over the jockey, and keep him from being tempted. Check out the video of one of the jockeys being whisked away only seconds after the race.

Video post-race of Jockey being whisked away

We are not sure why, but there were some guys in a big hurry to get him off the track quickly, before the mayhem expanded even more. Maybe he punched or whipped another jockey during the race. Maybe he blocked someone. Maybe he threw the race and these guys were from another Contrada. Who knows. All this cheating is not just allowed by rule and custom, it is expected and encouraged. But I get ahead of myself here.

Having arrived two days before the others in my party, and three days before the race, I dug into the history of the Palio, participating in the traditions that lead up to the main event on July 2nd. Part of the process is the lottery by which each horse is designated to each Contrada.

The rules state that none of the horses may be a purebred. All are mixed breeds, selected from private breeders in the region. While the jockeys are chosen by, and paid by, the Contrada, the horses are not. They are instead, randomly selected three days before the race in a very public ceremony in the Piazza.

So, I wandered down to the Piazza del Campo and found a place in the center of the square to watch the process unfold. I was an hour early so I could get a good spot in the shade. Then I waited for the horse lottery to begin. And I waited, and I waited. At one point I even wondered, “Did I come to the right place?”

But an hour after the scheduled time, the Campo started filling up. Then for the next hour, there was nothing but people milling about and enjoying the afternoon in the square. The dirt and turf materials had been laid down around the outer edge, so I was pretty sure I was in the right place. It appeared that something was going to happen. Then finally, some action.

A Horse Race in the Heart of Tuscany (Part 2)

Waiting in the Piazza for the Lottery to begin.

A Horse Race in the Heart of Tuscany (Part 2)

The Capitani Matching Horses to Contradas.

After a traditional announcement to call to attention by traditional trumpeters, the lottery panel (the Capitani) established itself along a riser in front of the town hall. Each of the neighborhoods paraded into the Campo, singing their fight songs, followed by hundreds of supporters. Once all Contradas were present, the committee began to pull numbers and names, and the lottery for the horses began.

Each Contrada heard its horse called and then a man on a ladder put the name of the Contrada by each horse. Once horses were matched to the neighborhoods, each horse was led off back to its neighborhood stable, along with a singing and chanting Contrada. Over the next couple days, the horses are brought back for a series of four trial runs in the Piazza, almost as exciting as the race itself. In between trial runs, “bodyguards” for the horses stand guard. A drugged or poisoned horse won’t win a race.

A Horse Race in the Heart of Tuscany (Part 2)

A parade in the street prior to the Lottery.

A Horse Race in the Heart of Tuscany (Part 2)

Post trial run and celebration with the horse.

For the Contradas, the Palio is a huge event with a long lead up. Many nights before, people are parading in colors and enjoying meals in the streets with fellow neighbors. A couple nights before the race, streets are closed off for residents to gather and break bread together. Pasta and beer being two other forms of wheat served. I think there was some fruit in the form of wine consumed as well. It was about as traditional as it gets.

A Horse Race in the Heart of Tuscany (Part 2)

The Wave Contrada having dinner in the street two nights before the Palio.

A Horse Race in the Heart of Tuscany (Part 2)

The Tartuca dinner two nights before the Palio.

A Horse Race in the Heart of Tuscany (Part 2)

Tartuca Kitchen serving up huge plates of pasta.

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Next week, I’ll share the story of our Contrada dinner the night before the race, how “my neighborhood” got gypped out of the race, and then a fun day driving the hill towns of Tuscany with Lief Simon and Kathy Peddicord.