Horse Race Politics

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:: 2017 FALL TRAVEL WRITING CONTEST FINALIST ::

Bribery, bareback jockeys, familiars, volcanic dust, tombolas, Siena, ox-penis whips, silk scarves, ethnomusicology, men-at-arms, Chaos, snaffle bits, barberi, Marian devotions, dried-up grandmothers, pig cheek, riderless part-breeds & the ten assassins.


12 August 2016. Night.

I looked up from the center of the small courtyard, above the hexagonal pillars, the Gothic arches and then higher, to the crenellations that framed a rectangle of deep-blue sky where a single planet or star shone. The building was made of stone and brick and the yard sealed by a thick, studded door, but it stank of herbivore life—a familiar, multi-noted fragrance of ammonia, digested hay, fresh sweat and the greasy powder that lives in short, silky coats. Underfoot, the flagstones were covered with yellow volcanic dust mixed with water to make a barely yielding surface. Intersecting crescents had been pressed into it by metal-shod hoofs. The courtyard had been empty for hours but the presence of the animals lingered, contained by the stone.

Outside, the sloping, narrow alleys of the city’s seventeen districts were hung with flags on which reared and strode a bestiary—Unicorn, Rhinoceros, Elephant, Ram, Panther, Eagle, Snail, Caterpillar, Tortoise, Giraffe, Goose, Porcupine, She-Wolf, Dragon, Dolphin and Little Owl—and a Seashell from Botticelli.[1] The human inhabitants of the city moved through the streets with folded silk squares around their necks to show their affiliation to each neighborhood. On migration paths centuries old, they poured out of their home districts and crossed into the territories of other creatures: Tortoise into Panther, Eagle into Rhinoceros. They walked a political structure as old as the brickwork and black paving slabs that made up the physical city. In a few days, the living animals whose vivid scent I’d caught in the empty courtyard would also trace grooves long established by custom, and they would rework the city once more, splitting themselves into two: representatives of the bestiary and real creatures—horses, with their frailties and their power.

Siena is known chiefly for the Palio, a bareback horse race that is run in three circuits around the Piazza del Campo in front of the town hall twice a year in July and August. It is ninety seconds long and nearly four centuries old, pitching ten of the city’s seventeen districts, or contrade, against one another at a time. The race has been the subject of chronicles, ethnomusicological theses, political-science doctorates, numerous documentaries and a feature film starring Diana Dors as a plucky jockey from Texas. It has more than a hundred rules. As the Senese like to say, Siena is the Palio and the Palio is Siena. Neither is conceivable without the other—at the level of grains of volcanic tufo, of stone and brick, of strands of DNA and molecules of adrenalin. The Senese is baptized into his contrada, raised on its folklore and helped in poverty or old age by its funds. No soccer fan can match his fanaticism.


Coming second is worse than finishing last, and a horse does not even need a jockey to be a victor as it canters bewildered over the finishing line.


The race takes its name from the hand-painted silk banner awarded to the victors and dedicated to the Virgin Mary: the July race marks the day of veneration for a local terra-cotta icon of Mary; the August race marks her assumption to heaven. For the sake of these banners, losing jockeys have been beaten or killed, starters attacked and even saints punished; in 1888, the men of the Snail contrada threw a statue of Saint Anthony down a well because he was the patron saint of horses and their horse had not won.

The Palio has been parsed by outsiders as everything from war games (the contrade were originally part guild, part fighting unit) to fascist pageantry and psychoanalytic display (the winning district sucks candy pacifiers to symbolize its rebirth at the Virgin’s breast; the longest loser becomes the nonna, or dried-up grandmother). Sociologists see it as a microcosm of Italian politics and society and a source of continuity across nearly a millennium. Its all-encompassing, obsessive protocol has been praised as a source of social order and low crime rates, even though massive public brawls are an annual occurrence. In its topsy-turvy world, there is no winner’s purse and a contrada can lose hundreds of thousands of euros even if it wins; coming second is worse than finishing last, and a horse does not even need a jockey to be a victor as it canters bewildered over the finishing line.

According to the Senese, the Palio is a cosmology with the logic of classical tragedy and myth: the guileless horse represents fate or nature, and the elaborate rules are a series of checks and balances against that fate running its course and winning or losing the race, just as man tries to use his wiles to outsmart destiny. For the horses, it’s fate of a different sort.

Compass Rose

13 August. Tratta. Lottery.

On Saturday afternoon I was wedged in a crowd of thousands in the piazza, three days before the race would be run around us. The long shadow of the Palazzo Pubblico’s tower was moving slowly across the square like a sundial. The shell-shaped square is what’s left of the valley where the three hills that make up Siena meet. Tower, Wave, Eagle, Forest and Little Owl all border on it, but it is neutral territory. For the four days of the Palio, crowds gather in it morning and evening, seven times in total, the square filling and emptying like a tidal pool. This was the first inundation, the Tratta, where the ten horses were assigned to the contrade and the contrade checked their hands and redoubled their gameplay. Here and there, groupings from each district formed patches of floating color in the crowds: green scarves for Caterpillar, yellow for Eagle, blue for Panther. I was among the maroon, white and black Little Owls, who were gathered near the border of their contrada, looking for a mare called Preziosa Penelope who had won the July race for the She-Wolves that year. The ten chosen horses stood in open stalls in front of the Palazzo, with numbers stenciled on their rumps, and I knew she was one of them. They would be assigned to the contrade by lottery. The first chance for the captains to pitch cunning against fate had already taken place: if a captain insists one exceptional horse is selected for the final ten, he runs the risk of it being allotted to his enemy, and he can’t guarantee that a poor horse won’t end up in his own contrada’s stable, so it is safest to select a field of mediocre runners.

The horses were not supposed to be more than three-quarters thoroughbred—purebreds having proved too fragile for the tight course, the vicious right-angled bend at San Martino and the tufo—but these looked like the undersized purebreds I’d seen running in pony races in England. They were small blood horses—whippets to a Derby winner’s greyhound, fine at the fetlock and grooved long in the rump, dwarfed by the huge sections of padding chained against the walls at the San Martino bend. That May, police had raided farms on suspicion that breeders had swapped the ID chips in some horses to pass purebreds off as part-breds.

There was no greeting or announcement over the PA system before the Tratta began; the Palio is not arranged for the convenience of outsiders, only the Senese, and you are simply supposed to know what is going on. An official climbed onto a wooden platform and a tombola was spun. No one spoke. The tombola stopped. The official drew out a ball. A number went up on a board behind him, and then another man slid in a panel with the word Civetta (Little Owl) on it and the Owls around me roared. My maroon-and-black segment of crowd detached from the rest and began to glide through it like a slab of snow riding on the surface of an avalanche, heading toward San Martino, carrying me with them. The Owls had been assigned Porto Alabe, a chestnut with a white blaze who had run in seven Palios, and by the time my crowd reached the contrada’s official party at San Martino, the gelding had become an Owl himself, with a liveried blanket thrown over his back and a black-and-maroon bridle tugged onto his head. He moved in a kind of air bubble through the Owls in the piazza, who respectfully avoided coming too close; if he were injured, they would be out of the race, with no second chances. At his head was the Little Owls’ barbaresco, or groom. The original racehorses were barbs or Berber horses from North Africa, so Palio horses are referred to not by the common Italian word for horses, cavalli, but as barberi, or barbs. The rank-and-file Owls fell into place behind Porto Alabe, lustily singing their contrada’s song.


For all the euros spilled in Palio week on nylon scarves and pizza by tourists only slightly less confused than the horses, the Senese would gladly shut the eight great wooden gates in the city walls and fight among themselves.


Each district uses the same swaggering tune, “Per Forza e Per Amore,” but with different lyrics. “Poor Unicorn / With that dry little horn, you look like a cuckolded horse, / You disgust the city,”[2] sang the Owls as we left the square and skirted the edge of the territory of their rivals, the Unicorns. That week I got to know the tune by heart as the men of Siena, chests out like cockbirds, fists swinging at their sides, sang it to one another across the piazza or in the streets. Behind us, I could hear a succession of shouts explode across the square as more horses were drawn, and then new renditions of “Per Forza e Per Amore” began. I broke away from the Owls and fought my way back to the square just in time to see the She-Wolves break into hysteria. They had drawn Preziosa Penelope, and there she was, a nervous, white-eyed bay mare skittering as the barbaresco led her forward. The She-Wolves punched the air and sang with vigor as they marched her out of the square—a thick-voiced male chorus rising to full-throated women and then piping children.

Walking back uphill through the twisting, steep alleys to catch up with the Owls, I wondered about Preziosa Penelope finding herself among this mass of shouting strangers waving flags and pushing tourists and shoppers out of the way. She wouldn’t see grass for a week, just stone and tufo. The men of her contrada would prepare guard rosters and shake out sleeping bags and camp beds outside her stable. For four days she belonged completely to the contrada, a prisoner-guest and the focus of their unfathomable hopes and emotions.

I caught up with Porto Alabe but lost him again when the Owls turned off up a passageway barely wide enough for three men to walk abreast, and then up to a narrow courtyard behind a thousand-year-old tower, where the horse vanished into a hidden stable. Like a feasting army, the Owls sat down on long benches that filled the street outside their little fortress and tucked into vast basins of pasta, tomato and pig cheek. They sang and thumped the tables, making the printed owls on the paper tablecloth shudder. They had owl tattoos and earrings. They drank wine. Nearby, Owl women in shorts and rubber gloves piped ricotta into row after row of cannelloni for the evening meal. As the Owls ate, their captain and his associates were haggling to get the best jockey they could afford, and when I left an hour later they marched their prize down the street: a sharp-cheeked old pro nicknamed “The Kid” who’d been riding in the Palio since 1999. A man with a hand on his elbow marched on either side of him. The Owls reached out from their benches to slap his back and wag fingers at him. His phone had been surrendered to his keepers and he, too, would be under guard among the Owls till the race began.

Compass Rose

14–15 August. Prove. Trial races.

For the next two days, twice daily before the trial races at 9 a.m. and at 7:15 p.m., the horses and jockeys walked through the city streets to the piazza at the head of a crowd from their contrada, all, apart from horse and jockey, singing their district’s song. The horses were sometimes extraordinarily calm at these rowdy parades, nudging their grooms in the back. Others, like Preziosa Penelope, sweated and swirled, mouths gagging on their snaffle bits. The She-Wolves had managed to secure the jockey who had won the July Palio for them, a young man nicknamed Scompiglio, or Chaos.

I positioned myself in the square close to the start for the first prova—near enough to see the steel spurs that showed under the loose, bright trousers worn by the jockeys. The men rode like Greeks on red-and-black pots: sitting back with their thighs high, almost as if they were on a chair rather than a horse. They had flimsy metal helmets, body protectors and pyjama-like silks in their contrada’s colors. The horses wore matching stiff leather crests with dots of mirror to deflect the evil eye.

The starting order was drawn at random. Nine horses were called into line between two thick ropes held at the height of their chests, and their jockeys used their spurs to drive them against one another to foul the start. Penelope was the tenth horse, the rincorsa; her jockey decided when the race began—the front rope dropped only when he set her dashing round the outside of the pack—and the other nine, some of whom had only half their hoofs on the floor or were facing the wrong way, twisted and jumped forward as the rope fell. But the roughhousing meant the starter signaled for the cannon—a false start.


The Senese is baptized into his contrada, raised on its folklore and helped in poverty or old age by its funds. No soccer fan can match his fanaticism.


The jockeys walked the horses back behind the two starting ropes and, pockets stuffed with their contrada’s money, set about bribing the jockeys of allied contrade and the rincorsa for the big race day. The captains had already been busy bribing other contrade to help them, and this next stage of palm greasing took into account the strengths and weaknesses of the horses. Eagle, for example, might bribe the rincorsa to wait till Panther’s horse was pushed out to the back of the runners—this obligingly done by Little Owl’s jockey, also bought. An inferior horse can be used to run a better horse into a barrier and send his jockey flying. Not all of this bribery followed the instructions of the contrade: now the riders were out of earshot of their captains and might find they were offered enough money to betray them.

The crowd, not trusting these mercenary “ten assassins,” hooted at them as they went through the motions of false start after false start and mingled traitorously with one another behind the ropes, with Preziosa Penelope and Scompiglio surrounded each time. When the field finally broke and for once was not recalled, the race settled into farce: one or two horses went off like the clappers, testing their balance against the turns San Martino and Casato, and the rest of the field cantered or even trotted round sedately, their riders chatting like Pony Clubbers as they completed three laps. Porto Alabe and the Little Owls won; Penelope was nowhere. The trial done, horses and jockeys were marched off to their lodgings with their bodyguards, the crowds dispersed and the restaurants on the square once more set out tables and parasols on the course.

The Palio’s organizers have taken steps to make the race marginally less dangerous for the horses: the ten-feet-high foam pads chained against the wall at San Martino are borrowed from Formula One racing; drug testing has been introduced. However, the horses still hurtle into the pads and are still pincushioned with frequent “vitamin” jabs and boosters by their keepers. It is at least harder than in the past to injure or otherwise nobble rival horses. The Senese are proud of the retirement farm set up in 1991 for Palio horses, who are visited by fans and remembered fondly. Winning horses have their photos set in the kinds of frames more commonly reserved for Marian icons, fixed high on the walls at the boundaries of each contrade like guardian spirits. But there is no suggestion that horses should be let out of their obligation to contribute to Siena’s civic tapestry, although other palios elsewhere in Italy have lost their races. When the Italian minister for culture and tourism blocked Siena’s attempt to have the Palio added to UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2011 because she—like many Italians—believed the race was barbaric, the Senese were furious. Animal-rights campaigners turned up for an official protest in 2015 but were relegated to an area away from the city center—quite probably for their own safety. Perhaps the national constitution granted them the right to protest, said the town councilor responsible for the race, but “Siena is older than the constitution.”


The Palio is not arranged for the convenience of outsiders, only the Senese, and you are simply supposed to know what is going on.


There was no danger of Siena letting another protest happen in 2016: all were banned on “security grounds” due to a “terrorist threat.” Instead, the Corriere del Palio proudly quoted an anthropologist who said that the people of the contrade were the real animalistis because they cared for the horse and loved it.

Outsiders were not expected to understand this. Each contrada has its own museum in which its old parade costumes and palios are hung, but few tourists are allowed into them. Do not sit on the benches round the square if you don’t want to be turned out by the real Senese, I was warned, or wear a silk scarf from one contrada within the borders of its rival (nylon was safe—nylon meant tourist). One afternoon I wandered down a quiet street in the She-Wolf contrada and found three men sitting on picnic chairs, glaring at me. An open door nearby revealed a bridle on a hook and an old horse blanket. I’d walked through the cordon round Preziosa Penelope’s stable without realizing. I swung my camera ostentatiously from my wrist and walked faster—just a tourist, just an idiot, not an animalisti or a spy.

Earlier that year, the contrade had turned down a request to pretend to run the race at a British pageant honoring Queen Elizabeth II. “The contrade would never accept to be puppets in an artificial, choreographed show,” commented a former mayor. For all the euros spilled in Palio week on nylon scarves and pizza by tourists only slightly less confused than the horses, the Senese would gladly shut the eight great wooden gates in the city walls and fight among themselves.

Compass Rose

15 August. Cena della Prova Generale. Race eve dinner.

The night before the race, I walked back down to the She-Wolf contrada’s clubhouse on Via Vessaroli and found a crowd gathered to watch as Preziosa Penelope was walked in circles to cool down after her penultimate trial race. Round and round she went on a ripped piece of matting laid down over the flagstones by the parish church. The little mare paced rapidly, and when the barbaresco stopped her and began to fuss with the rug over her sides she pinned her ears back and grimaced. I had watched the race earlier that night and seen the spurs again—no wonder Penelope didn’t want any humans near her sides. Children held out carrots or tried to catch her in the background of their selfies. A few yards behind her, women were pulling plastic sheeting off rows of tables—settings for hundreds of She-Wolves, who would toast their July Palio win with red wine and their raised fists as teenage girls in white dresses served risotto and salami. If Scompiglio and Penelope won the next day, it would be the first time a contrada had achieved such a cappotto (grand slam) since 1933. A gang of young female She-Wolves was already singing in their clubhouse, “White and black flag, / Striped with orange. Long live our Big Wolf, the most beautiful in the city,” and Penelope, her face contorted, circled on.

Compass Rose

16 August, 4:50 p.m. Corteo Storico e Palio. Historic parade and Palio.

On the afternoon of the Palio, the streets of Siena filled with the teams of all seventeen contrade. For hours, their snare drums beat in a monotonous rhythm that looped in the brains of the Senese as they crushed past one another down the alleyways. The contrada teams marched in formation—drummers, “bishops,” captain, men-at-arms, pages and ensigns with contrada flags—toward the bank of Monte dei Paschi di Siena, where the ensigns mutely faced one another and hurled the flags into the air in a choreographed display. The captains wore full suits of armor, their attendants velvet and wigs in the hot August sun. The onlookers filed gradually toward the piazza through the fine sieve of the city streets, like sand succumbing to gravity.

Two men had begun to beat the bell at the top of the Palazzo Pubblico’s tower when the horses were blessed in the city’s churches that morning, and they beat on hypnotically through the heat of the afternoon. Thousands of agitated Senese teemed in the center of the course, throwing up a din of incomprehensible voices and snatches of the Palio song. The square was so full that pigeons wheeled overhead, unable to find a spot to land. As the sun travelled across the square and sank below the rooftops, San Martino was the last corner to catch the light.

When the horses and their riders walked out of the studded door of the Palazzo Pubblico, they passed a policeman who held up for each jockey an ox-penis whip that showed white and rigid against the brickwork—visible even to me on the opposite side of the piazza. The riders would use these to beat one another and their mounts. The crowd was silent. No tannoy broke the hush. As a body, the Senese turned toward the starter on his platform and waited. The contrade were called. The rincorsa was Mississippi, who had the outline of a tortoise groomed into his coat. After each horse was called, there was a shout, quickly suppressed, and an intake of breath when Panther was called immediately after its rivals, the nonna, Eagle. At the start, the two contrade’s horses, both dapple grays by the same stallion, met between the ropes and their jockeys began a duel among the other runners in the narrow space. Panther blocked Eagle, forcing the gray to stand sideways behind the wall of horses. The crowd screamed disapproval—“Pantera!”—but the rincorsa broke from behind, the ropes fell and the field scrambled away. The cannon boomed. False start. The horses slowed as they rocked around the course and back to the start, and the crowd pushed their legs through the fence onto the course and waved hands almost in the jockeys’ faces.


The captains wore full suits of armor, their attendants velvet and wigs in the hot August sun. The onlookers filed gradually toward the piazza through the fine sieve of the city streets, like sand succumbing to gravity.


The ropes were drawn taut. The runners filed into the gap in order. Panther slammed into Eagle, shunting the gray back. The rincorsa ran forward, ropes fell, the field broke, the cannon fired—a second false start, and the shouts of “Pantera!” were mingled with whistles. A new lineup. Panther’s gray chased Eagle’s gelding behind the scrum of horses. Preziosa Penelope and Scompiglio stood in strange isolation, for which the She-Wolves had presumably paid handsomely. The two dapple grays fell into place, both pointing the right way for a second, and Mississippi came flying forward. The rope dropped, the horses sprang and the race began.

Panther’s gray was immediately cut off by Eagle, both jockeys beating one another as the field passed under my balcony in stream of color and rising and falling horses, the noise of the whips percussive above the roaring crowd. Seashell took the lead with Dragon’s Morosita on its heels. They both cleared San Martino, with Seashell hanging onto the lead down the straight and round the Casato bend, at which point Morosita was driven up the inside and accelerated to the front. As the horses flowed under my balcony for the second time, I saw Giraffe’s horse pulled up, faltering, right fore held awkwardly. By the second assault on San Martino, Preziosa Penelope was positioned behind Morosita, and Seashell’s jockey slid off his mount at the sharpest point of the bend and skidded on his back into the padded wall. The last three horses in the field flew too wide around the bend and trampled him. He was up on his feet in an instant, still in a protective crouch, and was quickly grabbed and hustled away by green-clad medics brandishing a yellow spinal board like a shield. His horse galloped on behind the leaders. Morosita, her jockey beating her neck, held the lead round Casato and past the start again, but as she galloped into the last lap and under my balcony for the third time, Scompiglio forced Preziosa Penelope through a gap on her inside, the mare’s shoulder inches from the marble posts and the frenzied crowd, pushing Morosita’s jockey away with his hand. The She-Wolves began to howl and keen. At San Martino, Penelope stumbled, recovered her footing before the shrine and was whipped down the straight by Scompiglio, who was staring back over his shoulder at Morosita. Penelope was half a length clear by Casato, her jockey battering her quarters with his whip, and the She-Wolves began to burst through the fence and run onto the track toward her. Penelope drew a length clear, and then she was at the finish, nostrils wide and ears strained, and the cannon boomed four times.

Scompiglio leaned back and hauled on Penelope, who, ears moving frantically, came jouncing and jolting to a walk as she hit a wall of She-Wolves screaming and shaking their scarves like spears. A man in a She-Wolf scarf was knocked over by the loose Seashell horse, which struck him in the thigh and spun him across the tufo. Senese poured down from the stands into the cauldron of the piazza, filling the course, and the other horses scrabbled to stop before crashing into them.


Men and women reached out to scrub their scarves on her heaving sides. They hugged and wept and whistled and tore at their hair and breasts.


The crowd consumed Penelope as they reached for Scompiglio. They pulled her bridle over her eye, placed hands on her face, and she disappeared from my sight, leaving her jockey suspended above the She-Wolves, who began to pull off his shirt. In the furious knot around the jockey, photo flashes went off like lightning in a cloud. Scompiglio was half naked, his flat belly crinkling as he leaned back, a faded blue tattoo ringing one bicep, as flags shook around him. On the starter’s balcony the captain of the She-Wolves had his scarf in his fist as he yelled in triumph. Giraffe’s lame horse had vanished.

By the time Penelope’s barbaresco had reached her, and a dozen hands had pulled Scompiglio from her back and carried him away, the mare was all eyes and white sweat. I could see her bloodshot sclera from where I sat trapped on my balcony. Men and women reached out to scrub their scarves on her heaving sides. They hugged and wept and whistled and tore at their hair and breasts. The She-Wolves began to sing, and the Palio was pulled down from its hanging place at the start and borne upright over the heads of the crowd toward Scompiglio. From San Martino came the July Palio, which moved to meet the August banner like a carnival stilt walker on its long pole. The banner swayed past Penelope and the mare stared up at it briefly, then threw herself in a small circle at the end of her reins, pushing back the crowd for a second before it closed around her.

Within an hour, the crowds would be gone and the restaurants around the piazza would have set up their tables on the course again, covering the frantic patterns left by crescent-shaped hoofs in the tufo. Another day and the tufo itself would be blasted off the flagstones with pressure hoses. A few more days and the She-Wolves would let Penelope go back to her field after days of parading her and Scompiglio around Siena. A fortnight and there would be no horses in the city, though the frightened bay mare would have remade Siena once more, retracing the centuries-old groove in the piazza and leaving behind a name, a silk banner and the faint, familiar tang of sweat among the stone.


  1. The seventeenth contrada, Seashell, has no animal familiar. The elephant represents the Tower contrada; the dolphin, Wave; and the rhino, Forest.
  2. Translation from Dr. Anna Hersey’s paper, “L’anima nostra che sa le canzoni: Musical improvisation in theory and practice at Siena’s Palio.”

Susanna Forrest is the author of The Age of the Horse: An Equine Journey Through Human History (Grove Press) and If Wishes Were Horses (Atlantic Books). She lives in Berlin. susannaforrest.com

Lead image: Benny Jackson

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