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Italy’s most ancient competitive horse-race – the Palio

Posted in Historical articles, Sport on Saturday, 31 December 2011

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This edited article about horse-racing originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 888 published on 27 January 1979.

Palio, picture, image, illustration

The Palio in Siena by Walter Tyndale

Rivalries between towns are widespread and traditional, but keen competition between districts within one town are rare. The Italian city of Siena has 17 districts, and for 363 days in every year nobody is keenly conscious of being a man of Onda, Istrice, or Lupa.

But on 2nd July and 16th August every year the city undergoes a remarkable change – for these are the days on which chosen horsemen from 10 of the 17 districts compete in the main square – the Piazza del Campo – for the palio, a victory banner.

The race, known as the Palio delle Contrade, was first held in 1644, and has taken place twice annually ever since except in times of war or plague. The city, about 100 kilometres south of Florence, is nowadays packed with visitors hoping for a vantage point in the crowd of sixty thousand round the square.

As so often with ancient sports, the event comes at the end of a long “build-up” in traditional costume. There is a procession of local people dressed in the clothes of three hundred years ago, and then behind this there enter the horsemen.

Each of the 17 districts has nominated its own champion in advance, and from these, 10 are chosen by lot to take part in the race. It would be impossible to have a “field” of as many as 17 horses in the limited space available, especially because of the tight turns involved in each corner of the square.

The 10 riders line up, each backed by supporters carrying the flag of the neighbourhood. Most of the neighbourhoods in Siena are known by animal names – Istrice (porcupine), Chiocciola (snail), Lupa (she-wolf), or Tartuca (tortoise).

The race is held over three laps of the “course” – and that is about the only rule competitors have to worry about. To complete the course they are fully entitled to push, shove, and cut in front of their opponents to block them. Only really skilled riders could hope to escape injury to themselves or their horses in such conditions, but injuries are surprisingly few.

The winner is often lifted from his horse by the crowd after crossing the finishing line, and his supporters from his neighbourhood carry him shoulder high through the streets of the city to show one and all that they are top dogs of Siena.

On that night – the victor’s night – rivalry and partisanship make the Celtic-Rangers rivalry in Glasgow look tame. The supporters of the winning rider really rub in the superiority of their neighbourhood, and woe betide any rival who questions it.

But a win in the July race is often a short-lived triumph, for on such a tight course it is not just skill, but also luck, which makes for victory, and so it is unusual for the same neighbourhood to win both the July and the August races. For those who revel in being top dog, an August win is much more satisfactory, for then the fruits of victory can be enjoyed for 11 months unchallenged.

What makes this event probably unique is that it is almost certainly the only horse race in Europe held on a paved surface, and so the techniques of riding and turning are totally different to those used on a normal racecourse. And this means that no neighbourhood has much chance of taking an unfair advantage by importing a professional jockey – for the jockey would be very unlikely to master the special tricks needed to keep his mount on its feet during a tight turn on a hard surface. And so the triumph of winning is genuine – there are no “mercenaries”.

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