Every year since 1625 the ancient town of Siena, Italy, has turned its main Piazza into a race course and it’s famous Palio race (named after the Italian word that means “banner” which is the prize given to the winning Contrada of the race). A thick layer of dirt is laid over the cobblestones and ten horses careen around the square three times. More than just a horse race, it’s a competition among 10 of the 17 contrade, or city wards. The race is run on July 2nd and, since 1701, also on August 16.
It’s a treacherous race in many ways. The turns are impossibly tight and steeply canted, the riders are bareback, and unlike “regular” horse races, jockeys are encouraged to interfere with other riders — they can pull or shove at other jockeys, hit other horses with their whips or try to block them. Part of the strategy is for the wards to prevent rival contrade from winning. Unsurprisingly, jockeys are often unseated. But that doesn’t eliminate the contrade as riderless horses can still win as technically, it is the .
Since all 17 wards can’t send horses to each race, the field is composed of the seven contrade who did not race in that month the previous years. Three more are chosen by draw.
The horses are provided by private owner. The main representatives of the participating contrade choose 10 horses of similar quality and then a lottery is held to determine which horse will run for each ward. Interestingly, only mixed breed horses are eligible.
Today was the second race day of 2013. The winner was Jockey Giovanni Atzeni of the Onda (Wave) ward.