Friday, July 4, 2014

Il Palio: the biggest sporting event you've never heard of

After the TTT World Championships last fall, I ended up in Siena for a couple of days. While there, I learned about Il Palio, the horse race that make this little medieval city famous. Just looking at pictures of the event, I quickly added it to my bucket list: attend Il Palio.

A couple of months ago, I realized that Il Palio would fall smack in the middle of my summer break, and I would be in Italy at the time. Siena is just a few hours on a train from Lucca....

I did a fair bit of reading up on the event beforehand to gain a semblance of understanding, but still only had a faint grasp. I got to Siena on day 3 of the 4-day Palio.

Il Palio, while still a horse race, is almost nothing like the American versions with which we're familiar. It's not an occasion for betting and money-making, and so much depends on chance.

Here's a quick rundown:

Siena is made up of 17 districts, called Contradas. Only 10 Contradas get to participate in Il Palio, which is held twice per year--once in July and once in August. The 7 Contradas that weren't in the last Palio get automatic entry, and the remaining 3 are drawn at random. So 3 lucky Contradas get two shots at it each year.

After determining which Contradas get to race, they are randomly assigned their horse and their jockey separately. The jockeys don't even know what horse they'll be on! The first 3 days of Il Palio consist of several trial races where the horses and jockeys are getting to know each other, their competition, and the course. Oh, and did I mention the race is bareback?

The course is a D-shaped loop in the Piazza del Campo, which is basically a half-bowl, so there is significant elevation change. They cover the bricks with a thick layer of clay for the race and line the course with fencing. The front of the shops around the Piazza are covered by bleachers. You can buy tickets for the bleachers, balcony seats, and apartment windows for a great view of everything, but they don't come cheap. Prices start at 200E. Or you can be a sardine and pack into the middle of the piazza.

28,000 spectators cram into the middle of the Piazza with another 33,000 in the bleachers, balconies, and windows.

After arriving hours beforehand to claim a good viewing spot in the Piazza (inside of the last turn, with a great view of the most exciting turn across the Piazza), the parade began. Lasting 2.5 hours, it's quite the spectacle. Not a hokey tourist attraction like medieval times, this is a legitimate medieval parade of all the Contradas and their horses. This event has been going on since the 17th century. There is a lot of pageantry involved.

After the parade is done, the racers enter the Piazza and chance once again comes into play. There are no starting gates, just a rope across the course. The race starts on a curve, so everyone wants the inside line. Starting positions are called out at random. So that everyone can hear, the 60000 spectators shush each other into an impressive silence. Also at play are the rivalries between the various Contradas. In the video, you can hear the excitement and conflict that arise when the first few start positions are called out. Apparently two rivals would be starting next to each other.

There is no countdown to the start. No, they're waiting for all the horses to be calm (and facing the right direction). They're all crammed against each other on the starting rope, full of excitement and tension. The jockeys and horses get into it a few times and all are ordered to go walk it off before being called back to the line in the same order, hopefully a little calmer. Over the span of 15 minutes, they did this 4 times before the race finally started.

The race is 3 laps of the Piazza and is over in a minute. My camera work isn't so great, but I wasn't looking at the camera. I was watching the race! As soon as the race was over, spectators jump the barriers in celebration. It's at this time that it's best to stay out of the way. Sometimes fights break out between Contradas. I'm telling you, this is a really serious event for Siena! The party for the winning Contrada goes on through the night.

Il Palio is an incredible event, and now I can say I've been there!