Il Palio is loco

Being fortunate enough in our travels to have reached the gorgeous city of Florence, we planned a day trip to the neighbouring medieval town of Siena, population 60,000, about 100 kms away. In addition to its impressive medieval architecture, Siena is famous for Il Palio, the wild horse race that is conducted on a dirt track laid around the outside of Campo, the main piazza. Our trip was postponed for a day due to Holly having a heavy cold. During breakfast the morning of the trip, a British woman mentioned that this day was the day for the second (and final) of this year’s races, which would be held at 7pm. I couldn’t believe our luck and headed to Siena full of curiosity and excitement about what might lie ahead.

En route to Siena by train, I read the Lonely Planet description of the race, learning that ten contestants represent various contradas(districts) of Siena. Presumably there is some pre-qualifying, as there are 17 contradas. I also learnt that the race is preceded by several hours of colourful pageantry, and that obtaining a rails spot required getting in position at least four hours prior to the race. It was sounding more and more like the Melbourne Cup.

We arrived at Siena late morning. After the obligatory pizza we headed straight for the Campo. There was a small amount of seating in the shade which was still unoccupied, so I settled in for the long haul minding these seats. Unfortunately we were evicted from these seats a couple of hours later, as we learnt that all seats were reserved and ticketed. Obviously Collo has been involved at some stage ! The price of a seat was apparently 200 euros. There was a large public standing area in the middle of the track where a good number of brave souls had settled in for a long day in the blazing sun, fortified by liquid refreshment. We were neither that brave nor that patient and retreated to the town streets. In doing so we crossed the dirt track which was rock-hard, even after a water truck had dampened both the track and the centre-track revellers.

The pre-race pageantry began in the streets of Siena at about 2pm in sweltering heat, with the mercury at about 35 degrees. Each contrada had a procession led by flag-bearers in their medieval costume and colours who performed an impressive array of twirling and throwing tricks. They were followed by drummers, trumpeters and a variety of other townsfolk, some in metal battle garb, some on horseback, others marching in support, all decked out in the contrada colours. It made the AFL Grand final parade seem very small town. Unsurprisingly one of the guys in the battle gear had to be replaced due to heat distress. I couldn’t spot a single ice vest or red vest for him to don.

The street procession lasted for about 2 hours before the official procession and entry into the arena began from outside the glorious Duomo, the town cathedral. More pageantry, colour and sound followed, and the pride of each contrada was obvious. After the official procession Sandra and Holly pulled the pin and decided to return to Florence. It was stiflingly hot and Holly was still suffering from her cold.

It was still two hours until the race began and I needed to hatch a plan to obtain a good vantage spot. In my younger days I prided myself on my ability to get into good spots at big sporting events without the appropriate ticketing. I sussed out the various entry spots to the reserved seating. I quickly decided that, as a middle-aged man visiting a foreign country it would be disrespectful and somewhat immature to try to weasel my way in. The other factor which may have assisted this prompt decision was my observation that all of the attendants wore guns, making them much more formidable and dangerous obstacles than the elderly gate attendants I used to target at VFL Park, the G and Kooyong !!

The public area was clearly my most viable option. Best of all it was free. I lined up in a queue that was about twelve across and two hundred metres long, and a heady sensory experience, filled with the pungent aroma of body odour and Pino Silvestre aftershave. It took about thirty minutes to get to the stadium entry. A sign outside the stadium read, in both Italian and English ” No WC (toilet), no children, no dogs.” Clearly this was going to be no place for the faint-hearted or the weak-bladdered. When I reached the centre of the track I took a position which offered a view of at least some of the track, alongside an English family who were equally entranced by this extraordinary event.

The track is undulating and no more than 250 metres in measurement and seemed to be all corners. It seemed optimistic that ten horses could fit across the track at the start without incident, and photographic displays in the town of horses and jockeys coming to grief confirmed the likelihood of carnage. Many nights of my childhood spent at the trots at the Showgrounds had taught me that the leader is very hard to beat on a tight track, but the absence of both any obvious betting and a form guide meant that I had no opportunity to seek to profit from this wisdom.

More and more poeple flowed into the centre of the track, with not a single attendant in sight. There were a few crowd surges which were quite unnerving, although I always kept an eye on the locals around me, who seemed relatively unperturbed, which I considered a good sign. More pre-race pageantry ensued, with parades, trumpets, flag-twirling and the occasional cannon shot, which equally startled the tourists and the local bird population.

The horses finally entered the track at around 6.55 to the passionate support of their local contradas. This was old-fashioned sport in more ways than one, purely for the honour of those that you represent.

The horses got to the start line, a rope across the track. The locals shushhhhhed the tourists who didn’t understand the solemnity and importance of the occasion. The starter called the horses by their contradas one by one, and the jockeys trotted them up as they do at Flemington, Randwick, Royal Ascot and indeed Manangatang. The starter was unhappy with the line and ordered the starters to retreat, in much the same way as a track and field starter orders the field to “stand up please.” After this happened three or four times the crowd grew restless. Eventually the mysterious starter whose microphoned voice crept across the hushed stadium was happy and they were ready to go.

The silence was broken by a furious burst of energy from horses, riders and the crowd. The orange and white (Lupine contrada ) and red and white (Giraffe contrada) contestants led clearly, and my earlier proposition that the track was pretty much all corners was confirmed, with the jockeys steering their mounts like cyclists in a velodrome, up the banks and down across the corners. Orange and white and red and white vied for the lead for the first couple of laps before red and white burst away at the start of the third lap. In the third and final lap the horse coming fourth or fifth spoiled what had been a cleanly run affair by losing its footing around a sharp turn. As it sprawled across the track its legs flew into the air bringing down most of the rest of the field. Hundreds of spectators ran onto the track to tend to the fallen jockeys and horses and catch the riderless horses that bolted away. I was left to wonder whether they would have done the same had the fall occurred in an earlier lap.

The jockey on the red and white mount got to enjoy the last hundred metres or so, flourishing the whip to the crowd and rising out of the saddle to celebrate victory. He was lucky that Des Gleeson was not there to frown upon his actions and issue a tokenistic fine. As the horses went past the line spectators poured onto the track to embrace the victor and the moment. The flag-bearers also re-appeared on the track at the finish line.

Just when I thought a compelling day’s entertainment was coming to a close, a crescendo of noise arose on the far side of the track. A running brawl had erupted featuring 50-60 young men, with people flying into the fray from all directions. It did a VFA Grand Final proud and I was a bit scared that the whole overcrowded stadium could degenerate into complete chaos. Somehow it stopped after a minute or so, and I began to work out how to exit and go towards the station. Another crescendo of noise informed me that the blue had flared up again, of similar ferocity and lasting a similar time. Another smaller flare-up was thankfully the end of hostilities.

As I followed thousands out of the venue, many of the bars and pubs nearby were showing replay after replay of the race. I stopped and watched a replay and reflected that it wasn’t half as good on television, like most sport.

On the packed train back to Florence I struck up conversation with a young couple from Brazil. Their English was limited, and my Spanish non-existent, so conversation was brief and often mutually confusing. One thing on which we were in furious agreement and understanding was the man’s succinct summary of the day, “crazy.”

It was indeed a crazy day and an unforgettable experience. If you get the chance, do it, you won’t regret it. Some footage of the event is available at .



  1. Andrew Fithall says

    Great write-up Steve. One tip (not horse related). Next time you are trying to converse with someone from Brazil (it is sad we can no longer refer to a “Brazilian” without blushing), you might achieve more with Portuguese rather than Spanish.

  2. John Butler says


    That sounds like a riot (literally).

    Or standing with the Magpie cheer squad perhaps?

  3. Steve Fahey says

    Thanks Andrew and John

    I thought my Spanish is bad, my Portuguese is even worse.

    Ran into a bloke yesterday who attended the training sesion the day before the race, and there was a punch-up at that also. Very passionate people the Italians !! He also reported that two of the fallen horses died. The race is understandably very unpopular with animal rights organisations.

  4. YouTube video is great! Sort of an equine equivalent of the night NASCAR race at Bristol — or the snowboardcross at the last Olympics — with horses instead of cars and snowboarders skidding everywhere. And many a NASCAR race has ended with a dustup or two, also. Great piece.

  5. David Downer says

    Great yarn Steve, I almost added this one to my “Grand Slam Sporting Tour of Love” in 2009. We were staying in Florence at the time but toured Siena the day AFTER Il Palio! For all my sports event planning that trip, I buggered this one up by one day.

    On the day of our tour It seemed about 40 degrees and I could only imagine the absolute bedlam transpiring less than 24 hours earlier, so thanks for sharing the experience. Not sure we could have handled those crowds to be honest.

    I do remember the flags of the winning contrade flying triumphantly all over the town. I think you’ll find those winning Swannies colours in your event were the Giraffe contrade, followed by the orange and whites of the Unicorn – incidentally, the colours of the latter were matched by my and D.O’Donnell’s tie at MV last Saturday – and that of McKenzie Stakes winner Amah Rock (fitting to finish with horeracing theme there!).

    Fascinating stuff Il Palio.


  6. Very belated thanks Dave

    One to add to the bucket list. I have been thinking a fair bit about the bucket list since returning a few days ago !!

  7. BTW, just found found some more extraordinary footage of the event, including the falls and some blurry footage of the start of the ifght

    see and for more footage of the organised chaos.

    I do hope that the injured jockey didn’t have a neck injury !!

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