Siena's Horse Race
Is a War of Dirty Tricks

From ITALY DAILY, published with Corriere Della Sera
and distributed with the International Herald Tribune.

Wednesday, August 11, 1999
By Carlotta Jessi


There are few events in Italy with such a stark mixture of the sacred and profane as the twice-yearly Palio di Siena. Each year on July 2 and Aug. 16, a holy war breaks out in the Tuscan city, as different neighborhoods compete in a horse race in honor of the Virgin Mary, using any means available to beat the opposition.

For the powerful "Capitano del Popolo", or captain of the crowd, of one of Siena's competing districts, the atmosphere in the city during the four days before the race is not to be taken lightly. "We are at war," explains Pierangelo Stanghellini, without a hint of irony.

For the purposes of the two Palio races, Siena is divided up into 17 "contrade", or medieval districts, each one named after an animal or an object. The "contrade" each sponsor a horse and jockey in the race, which traces its origins back to the 13th century. The race itself is just three laps around the city's central Piazza del Campo, lasting only 90 seconds. But it is the ceremony and the behind-the-scenes deals which are most important.

Three days before the actual race, a medieval atmosphere prevails in the city, with colored flags hanging on house walls to mark the boundaries of each "contrada", horses clattering through Siena's narrow streets and drummers practicing for the big day.

Mr. Stanghellini is crowd captain of the turtle "contrada". "If there is blue and yellow around, and you see a turtle on the flag's coat of arms, then you are in the "Tartuca" territory," he boasts, using the local name for his neighborhood. The crowd captain is the highest authority in each "contrada", and for the three days leading up to the race, everyone must obey him. He is elected democratically by an assembly - a governing body chosen by all adult members of each neighborhood.

"It's a full-time job," explained Mr. Stanghellini, who is a businessman in real life. "You have to run the 'contrada' and form alliances and secret pacts with other 'contrade' long before the day of the Palio."

This Byzantine procedure can last for months and includes trying to work out a deal with another "contrada" to obtain the best jockey on the market or, more importantly, to obstruct the efforts of the common enemy. Even though large amounts of money change hands under such pacts, nothing is written down, and the deals can be suddenly broken off. What counts in Siena is one's word and one's good name.


"Winning the Palio is Important to the City's Neighborhoods, But So Is Sabotaging the Opposition"
Such deals are usually kept secret until the night before the Palio, when a communal dinner is held in every "contrada" and the crowd captain finally reveals the strategies for the race.

The winning "contrada" brings home the "cencio", or the rag, as many Sienese call the banner painted with the image of the Virgin Mary. But that is not the "contrada's" only goal. "Obstructing the others [in the] race, bribing their jockeys and supporting an allied "contrada" is nearly as important as winning," Mr. Stanghellini explains.

The Palio engenders fierce loyalties from people born into a "contrada" and traditionally rebaptized in its local fountain, as has happened for generations. They are intimately involved with every stage of the four-day event.

For the Aug. 16 race, the mayhem begins Friday, when lots are drawn to select the horses that will run, the "contrade" to which they will be assigned and the order in which they are lined up on the track. No more than ten "contrade" can take part in each Palio, so a first lot was held to pick competitors for the July race. Next Monday's race consists of the other seven "contrade", plus three of the July competitors chosen by a second lot.

Once distributed, the horses cannot be changed. They are led to each "contrada's" stable, where two guards and a veterinarian watch to make sure they are not poisoned or drugged by rivals. "Every man, woman, grandparent and child of the 'contrada' watches outside the stable in case traps are set by the enemy," Mr. Stanghellini says. "Yes, we are at war, and almost anything is allowed."

Bribing the jockeys of rival "contrade" is a common weapon. The riders usually come from Sardinia, Sicily and Maremma, and each "contrada" never knows until the last minute if their man has been corrupted by a rival. On Saturday and Sunday at 9 A.M. and at 7:15 P.M., all the jockeys and their mounts will be put through their paces during trials held in the Campo.

Then, on the eve of battle, each community goes back to its neighborhood to prepare a feast held on the streets for as many as 3,000 people. Entire families stroll, sing and dance all night.

When the great day dawns, all the jockeys go to mass in the chapel of the piazza, while thousands of spectators converge on the Campo for the "provaccia", or dummy run, the final trial at 9 A.M., after which the crowds return to their neighborhoods for final preparations. The suddenly empty streets leave a sense of anticipation.

In the afternoon the horses are taken to their "contrada's" church to be blessed with the words: "Go, little horse, and return a winner."

If the animal happens to leave a pile of droppings on the altar, it is considered to be particularly propitious.

All that remains now is for the spectators to put on their traditional costumes for the parade in the Campo at 5 P.M., when drummers and flag-throwers, bearing the livery of each "contrada", march in colorful procession.

The square is now packed with people, as the Palio banner is carried around the Campo. Tension mounts as nine of the horses start lining up between two ropes and, after countless false starts, suddenly the tenth animal comes thundering from behind. As soon as it hits the first rope the second cord is dropped and the race is on.

Three short laps of the piazza later, and the Palio is over until next year. The winning "contrada" starts celebrating with songs and dances, all its followers going to the cathedral to thank the Virgin Mary before starting the huge party that lasts for days.

Not only are the sacred and the profane mixed in the Palio, but also the city's social classes. "On a victory night, rich and poor sit at the same table and social differences don't count any more," Mr. Stanghellini says. "When the celebration is over, what remains of the "contrada" is an extended family which supports its members throughout the year."

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