Il Palio; They call it a horse race…


By Jaymie Klauber

After returning from Italy a few years ago, I had to rearrange my register of thrilling experiences.  Topping the list now is Il Palio, the most fabulous, brilliant display of pageantry I’ve ever witnessed.

Our Italy trip was conceived by Malaka Hilton, owner of Admiral Travel, who invited my husband, Tommy, chef and proprietor of Pattigeorge’s Restaurant on Longboat Key, to be the culinary guide for her group tour.  Our journey began in Tuscany at the villa Il Borro, an idyllic 1700-acre sprawl that includes horse paddocks and a winery.   Following was three days in Florence, and a day-trip to Siena to attend the spectacle known as Il Palio.

Owned by the Ferragamo family, Il Borro is run by Salvatore Ferragamo, a gracious host who personifies Italian hospitality and is, by the way, movie-star handsome. As well, he is an avid polo player.  My dreams came true when Salva asked if I wanted to “stick and ball” with him at his polo club.  Guess what my answer was?!  It was an unforgettable experience, also right up there on my list.

 Il Palio is a centuries-old tradition brought to life twice each year, a fierce competition between Contrade, or city wards.  Owners of private stables offer the pick of their top horses, who participate in ceremonious trials, during which Palio horses are selected and assigned to represent a contrada for the race.  A lottery is held to determine the pairings of horse and rider.  The jockeys are never from Siena; many are Sardinians who, I am told, tend to be rowdy mercenaries, which adds a certain dynamic, of course.  Both horse and rider will don the colors and arms of the Contrade, their costumes evoking those worn when the tradition began in 1660.

On the morning of the race, each horse is blessed by a priest in the church of its contrada, while spectators, both local and from around the globe, begin arriving -- eventually filling the center of the town square (inside the track) to capacity. As for the size of that unseated throng, I’ve heard numbers ranging from 50,000 to 80,000...  The band and sundry others who’ve figured it out are seated in bleachers hugging the buildings that rim the outer track.  The local police seal the entrances once the festivities begin in earnest, at around 4:30, and the only way one can leave is on a stretcher. 


Malaka and Salvatore had arranged for our group to watch the race from the spacious historical apartments of Contessa Delchi.  Antique-filled, velvet-draped, gilded and frescoed, it overlooks the square from a story above.  Deep window ledges are upholstered with red canvas cushions, so delicate elbows and forearms can lean unscathed.   The location and view from the Contessa’s villa compares to an owner’s box on the 50-yard line at the Superbowl.  From this vantage point we are able to witness every nuance of this awe-inspiring event.  Tommy and I were glad to see an acquaintance of ours there, Salvatore’s friend and special guest, Tim Gannon, owner of Outback, and big-time polo player.

Three hours of Medieval pageantry precede the race.  Oh, the pomp and splendor! Showy costumed flag throwers march solemnly, sword-wielding carabinieri enter astride glistening horses;  acrobatic jesters, followed by an ornate 16th century wagon (precursor to the parade float) that carries the Palio’s founding family.  The music changes, and leaders of the 17 districts (some accompanied by bodyguards) saunter in and take their place in a VIP box.   

Salvatore points out two very sharp curves along the shell-shaped track, which are padded with much-needed crash barriers. He assures us that, although riders often fall at these curves, and are carried off to waiting ambulances, all have survived.  The Saints of the Palio watch over these proceedings, he tells us.  As do a great many pigeons, I notice.

He fills us in as well, about money and pride driving all that is related to Il Palio: deals are made with jockeys, and bribery is perfectly legal, ongoing right up to the starting line.  If your contrada has drawn a bad horse, all is not lost; you can still bribe a jockey to make sure your enemy doesn’t win.  It’s the next best thing to winning yourself.  

At 7:30 the steeds and jockeys arrive on the scene, and pandemonium breaks loose. Frenzied fans scream, banners wave, whistles blare and cannons fire as time after time the officials try to align the horses in correct order, to start the race.  They push and shove each other, as more bets and bribes are signaled to the riders from the big-wigs of the Contrades. We hang out the windows in heart-pounding anticipation, thinking the mossiere is about to raise his arm to signal the start, but then he nods imperceptibly, the air fills with thousands of groans, and the horses all file out to begin again. We get used to the repeated disappointment of false starts, so that when the rope finally does fall, we are taken by surprise and must adjust our focus on the magnificent animals hurtling by at breakneck speed. 

The jockeys ride bareback, taking three laps around the treacherous 339-meter track,  which takes only 90 seconds.  The riders are allowed to use their whips not only for their own horse, but also to agitate other horses and riders. The winner is the first horse to cross the finish line with its head ornaments intact – with or without the rider, who need not necessarily finish.  Often he does not. More than surprising, it seems crazy -- bareback riders galloping, crashing into each other while maneuvering tight turns, some less than 90 degrees. A few riders fly off their horses, and the crowd cheers even more enthusiastically, urging the riderless horse on towards the finish line, in hopes their steed crosses first.

The after-party is not unlike Mardi Gras: jubilation through the streets of Siena, visitors and locals roaming, in either celebration or defeat, through the winding corridors of the ancient town.

Our animated chatter is drowned out by the singing of the victorious contrada, as we wend our way to our thankfully, air-conditioned bus for the trip back to Florence, and reality.