Every year in Siena, hopes and dreams come alive in the form of the city’s annual horse race. The event is far more than a few champion horses rushing around the track to polite applause – it is a rowdy tradition that dates back to the 11th century.
In Siena, there are seventeen distinct neighborhoods that have well defined boundaries which have developed over time. These seventeen neighborhoods have been the centers for family celebrations, neighborhood festivities and also mark the boundaries for the competition that occurs twice a year.
The seventeen neighborhoods, or contradas, begin preparing for the race months ahead of time by selecting the important members of the pageant cast and the caregivers to the mount. Then a horse is selected with great care and is blessed and spoiled by the entire contrada. The horse is prepared only days ahead of time and as excitement grows, the political aspects of the race grow as well.
There are two races during the festival one on July 2 and the other on August 16. Only ten horses run at each race meaning three lucky neighborhoods get to run twice. The three are alleged to be chosen randomly, but many feel there is much more to the selection than names in a hat.
The days leading up to the race are intense. Thousands from the neighborhoods grow antsy and money begins changing hands at a record rate. Some contradas are in the race to win, others to sabotage the efforts of foes or the foes of friends. Deals are made and broken and even at the starting line, more secret arrangements are made as the officials try to line the horses up time and time again.
The evening before the Palio, each neighborhood hosts a huge banquet outside to practice for the victory celebration the following day. Thousands of people in each neighborhood eat outside and share enthusiasm for the race the next afternoon.
The day of the Palio, neighborhoods bring the chosen horse into a neighborhood church to be blessed and then he is escorted to the track. Fans crowd the center ring and over 27,000 spectators are held within the center of the track in a matter of hours. A spectacular pageant ensues that many locals have been practicing for year-round, and floats and costumes take the city back to the medieval times.
Finally, the horses are brought around amid cheers and deafening noise. The ten horses take many tries to line up correctly at the starting rope, and during this time many more bribes and arrangements are made. Finally, the rope is dropped and the race begins. Only one contrada can win, and the banner is awarded to that one immediately following the race. The nine other neighborhoods head home amidst groans and grumbles to plan a strategy for the next Palio.