Bucket List Travels: The World’s Wildest Horse Race

Morristown resident Paul Partridge has been building a travel bucket list for years. Now he’s diving in – near and far – and shares his adventures in this column.

40,000 enthusiastic spectators await the start of the race.

The Palio di Siena is an insane horse race that’s been held since the Middle Ages and continues today. Here’s a view from inside the ropes.

Text and photos by Paul Partridge

Ten wild-eyed stallions are sprinting straight at us. The rumble of their hooves and violent power of their strides augurs a frightening determination. Hours earlier these horses were blessed at church, and it looks like they may need it. There’s a hairpin turn ahead and surely there’s no way all can make it through without incident.

Welcome to the Palio

I’ve been lucky enough to attend the World Series, the U.S. Open, the Indianapolis 500, the America’s Cup, Army vs. Navy, and the Tall Ships parading down the Hudson during the Statue of Liberty’s Centennial celebration.

Nothing compares to the spectacle, the pageantry, and the pandemonium unleashed by a bareback horse race involving three death-defying laps around the Piazza del Campo in Siena Italy.

All that’s delightful and charming about Italy is on display – food, wine, art, architecture, fashion, passion, it’s all here – compressed into a single, unforgettable day.

Neighbor vs. Neighbor

Siena is divided into 17 neighborhood districts or wards called Contrade. Each contrada has its own colors and flag, and takes the name of a spirit animal or object. For example, Leone (lion), Lupa (she-wolf) and Drago (dragon).

The rivalry between neighborhoods is fierce. The greatest outcome is for your contrada to win. The second-best outcome is for your rival neighborhood to lose.

Some contrade have resorted to bribery to get their horses to perform better, while others have employed drugs. Jockeys have been kidnapped, seduced, and threatened. Heavy objects have been placed under saddles to slow down competing horses.

The preparations that take place leading up to race day are enormous. Think Halloween, Mardi Gras, and the Rose Bowl parade, rolled into one. The festivities culminate with the pre-race dinner.

Pre-race dinner in the Aquila neighborhood feels like we’re eating at Hogwarts.

My family is invited to dinner with the Aquila (eagle) contrada. The setting, in the shadow of the Duomo, is so spectacular I get goosebumps. It feels as if we’re dining at Hogwarts.

Up at the main dais, the jockey is serenaded by hymns, chants, children’s poems and vino-fortified toasts. Some vestal virgins may have been offered but I can’t be sure from my seat. Our jockey seems surprisingly subdued, as if hoping for the fete to end.

Perhaps he’s not confident in his steed because horses are not chosen; they’re assigned by lottery. Or maybe he’s recalling the unfortunate history of Aquila, as Eagle holds the record for fewest race victories. Or he could be contemplating the plight of previous riders – heroes turned goats following inglorious defeat. For a Palio jockey, adoration can turn to contempt – or worse – in under 90 seconds.

Race Day

For three days prior to race day, a watchman has been sleeping with Eagle’s stallion to guard against tampering. This morning he’s walked to the Duomo and blessed by the local priest.

Piazza del Campo starts to fill around 3 pm. The festivities officially begin when the Italian cavalry enter the square. Impressively, majestically, they parade in, salute the dignitaries, and then lead a series of charges, swords drawn. Half mesmerizing, half terrifying, it jolts the crowd to attention.

Next comes the parade, a two-hour feast for the eyes featuring archers, horsemen, flag wavers, drummers, trumpeters, noblemen (and women) – all dressed in Medieval and Renaissance era costumes. Every neighborhood is represented.

By 7 pm it’s race time. An entire Shakespearian play takes place in the leadup to the start. Nine horses are chosen randomly to enter the starting line. They take their position rather casually, Italian style. There are no gates; only a singular rope holds the ensemble (loosely) in place. It’s more like a moving scrum of unruly kindergarteners then a starting line.

The Puppet Master

Palio jockeys race bareback just as they have since 1656.

The 10th horse, called the Rincorsa, stands alone, surveying the scene. He can enter when its jockey so decides. In this way he’s the puppet master, because the race begins only when the Rincorsa crosses the starting line.

The dance between the Rincorsa and the other horses is called the Mossa. There’s lots of banging and bumping and fidgeting. Jockeys are tense. Horses twitch and snort. The crowd, 40,000 strong, crescendos into a fevered roar – shouting, gesturing, imploring, cursing (and that’s the women).

Then, a moment of calm, a second of quiet. All eyes turn to the Rincorsa.

Suddenly a horse rears, squealing and kicking. The other mounts scatter. Race organizers scramble to get the horses calmed and realigned. This happens several more times. Mossa can take two minutes or over an hour. Seven centuries of grudges and paybacks play out in the scrum activities.

Secret Backroom Deals

Heads of the contrade make secret backroom deals, so if their horse is the Rincorsa, they might be rewarded if they enter when their horse is in a good position, or their enemy is in a bad position. The jockeys also make deals, so you don’t know if they are trying to win or just block another rider. Perhaps this explains why the Sienese name for jockeys is assassini (assassins).

Without warning the Rincorsa bolts across the starting line and a cannon fires to signal the race is on. Our Aquila jockey hasn’t recovered from last night and is late off the line.

The racetrack is not a perfect oval. Walls jut out at crazy, dangerous angles, especially in Turn 2 where we’re sitting. The walls are padded to protect the horses, but that doesn’t prevent collisions.

Jockeys are sometimes separated from their mounts (remember, they’re riding bareback). A riderless horse is not disqualified. The first horse to cross the finish line – with or without a jockey – wins.

The lead changes constantly – and suddenly. Which fuels the excitement. And the delirium of the crowd. One minute your horse is at the back of the pack. Two breaths later, he’s charging to the lead.

Going into the final lap, it looks to be a two-horse race between Nicchio (Seashell) and Oca (Goose). Meanwhile the Eagle has landed, crashing in Turn 2 and never finishing the race.

The crowd is on its feet. It’s a photo finish. The winner is . . .

Goose! The Oca neighborhood faithful rush onto the racetrack, flags waving, tears of joy overflowing. They hug and kiss the jockey and hoist him onto their shoulders, singing songs of joy. The winning horse is marched into church and down the aisle for a blessing.

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