The Palio is one of Tuscany’s most celebrated festivals and occurs every year on July 2 and again on August 16, the feast days of the Virgin to whom the race is dedicated.
The Palio is a bareback horse race that runs a three-lap circuit around the semi-circled sloping Piazza del Campo in the center of Siena. The prize is a silk embroidered banner, or pallium, from which the race takes its name.
The first recorded race is 1283, but it may have had its origins in Roman military training. The jockeys represent Siena’s 17 contrade (districts/ parishes). All contrada are fiercely independent, but each has its own special rival, which can stretch back over generations. There is much planning that goes not only into winning the race but ensuring their rivals humiliation. It has been known for riders and horses to be kidnapped before the race so therefore riders and horses are watched night and day in the weeks leading up to the race.
Each contrada has its own church, colours, flag, coat of arms and symbolic animal, often it is the name of the contrada. The Palio is proceeded by a parade by representatives of each of the contradas so it is a parade of colourful pageantry with historical costumes, flag-throwing and of course heavy betting on the outcome.
Only ten horses, from the seventeen contratas, are able to take part in each Palio and are chosen by lot. The riders that are not chosen can take part in the pre-race procession but not the race. The race itself last only 90 seconds and begins around 7pm when all but one of the riders are gathered together. The race begins when the lone rider charges his rivals and the race is on! There are no rules except that a jockey cannot interfere with another riders reins. As a result the races are exhilarating, adrenalin infused, violent and dangerous contest for both riders and horses. Sand is laid over the cobblestones as well as mattresses over the fencing to help prevent serious injury as many riders are unhorsed during the course of the race.
Thousands of spectators crowd into the Piazza del Campo and surrounding buildings to watch the race and celebrate for the winner, which can last for weeks, while the recriminations and memories of foul deeds can last for years among the beaten contradas.