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This is not a race – it's a war

Though it barely lasts 90 seconds, the Palio di Siena horse race is a symbolic battle between the city’s rival wards, rife with myths, legends and accusations of foul play. We go behind the scenes in Siena to discover its secrets

This is not a race – it's a war

Text by Erin Florio / Photos: Greg Funnell

This will always be a battle for the Sienese,” says Massimo Coghe, a three-time champion jockey and retired veteran of the Palio di Siena, the world’s most infamous horse race. “It is not a sport to them; it cannot be compared to a sport. It is their entire life.”

Coghe, a Sardinian who raced in 33 Palios, knows what this race means to the beautiful medieval town of Siena, in Tuscany. Held twice every summer, 50,000 people crowd into the central Piazza del Campo to watch the race between 10 horses, each of which represents one of the city’s 17 contrade, or city wards, which date back to the 12th century when military wards formed against the Florentines. They are mostly named after animals, from Aquila (Eagle) to Tartuca (Tortoise).

Yet for all the near-unfathomable level of pomp and tradition, the Palio boils down to 90 seconds of pure adrenaline. During three circuits of the dirt-covered piazza, riders race bareback, using whips made of dried bull’s testicles (called nebri) to not only whip their own horses but also their opponents. Many jockeys will end up in the dirt, and the residents of only one contrada will end up climbing a human pyramid to retrieve the Palio itself, an elaborate painted banner specially created before every race.

Since the race was first held in 1656, no official rules or codes have been drafted, and it has traditionally been rife with corruption, from bribery to doping and all manner of foul play. Often the aim is as much to disrupt a rival contrada as it is to win for your own. It’s little wonder that Coghe states, “This is not a race –
it’s a war.”

It’s late June, and I’ve come to Siena with photographer Greg to try to get a sense of the cloak and dagger world behind it, ahead of the year’s first race on 2 July. The first stop is the Selva (Forest) contrada, which runs west from the Piazza del Campo. The old stone walls are dotted with tiles of rhinos and oak trees, which symbolise Selva’s historic place as the district of hunters.

At Selva’s gorgeous, 19th-century Museo di Contrada, we meet Francesco Rinaldi, the priore (director) of the district, which essentially means he’s the local councillor. The museum, underneath the neighbourhood chapel, is a gallery-come-shrine filled with 300-year-old memorabilia usually off-limits to the public.

Rinaldi’s main role in the Palio is to nominate a captain, who’ll hatch a battle plan to win the race, spending months sounding out jockeys, forming secret alliances and plotting against enemies.

“The captain has two goals,” says the warm, smiling Rinaldi, who’s crisply dressed in blue jeans and blazer. “First is to win. But if he can’t win, the second is to make damn sure his nemesis can’t either.”

Though Rinaldi is clearly proud of his ward’s Palio traditions, showing us the 33 hand-painted victory banners Selva has accumulated over the years (from 37 wins), he doesn’t sugar-coat the race’s colourful history. In 358 years of the Palio, there are too many tales to mention of rival horses being drugged or jockeys poisoned. In one story he tells us, an unsuspecting rider was fed potently alcoholic chocolates before the starting rope – he fell off his horse mid-race and forgot he’d ever mounted. In another, a mare’s pheromones were smeared all over the stall of a young stallion who’d recently suffered a botched castration, leading to a particularly beastly situation at the starting rope the next day.

“When a captain clinches victory, he earns himself a spot in the books of Siena’s history,” says Rinaldi, “That’s why they are willing to put so much on the line and take so many chances for a win.”

Contrade don’t have their own horses, but borrow them from private owners. “If we raised a strong horse, someone would harm it,” explains Rinaldi, simply, even if Selva currently doesn’t have an official enemy, having resolved old enmities with the neighbouring Pantera (Panther) contrada.

The horses are allocated to a contrada by lottery three days before the event, and then guarded fiercely. Rinaldi takes us out of the museum and under a low stone portico into a sloped lane looking over the botanic gardens. Hidden behind a thick metal door is the Selva stable, among the contrada’s homes.
Here, a squad of stable boys and veterinarians surround the horse round-the-clock, like a defensive wall against pending plots. Rinaldi follows my eye toward a dusty, battered old Ikea couch an arm’s length from the pungent mound of hay. “That’s where the stable boy sleeps when our horse is here,” he explains. “The contrade don’t take any chances.”

For a more balanced view, we head back via the Piazza del Campo, passing the eagle-engraved fountains of the Contrada di Aquila until we reach the Torre (Tower) contrada, recognisable for its black and white tiles. (Siena’s old walled town is small, so it’s easy to walk between the 17 contrade.)   

Four storeys up are the offices of the Consorzio della Tutela del Palio, a non-profit dedicated to preserving the race’s historical inheritance. Francesco Boschi, the consorzio’s young, tattooed CEO meets us inside its main hall, where 17 mini-thrones, each carved with the symbol of a contrada, sit at a large, raw wood table.
“This is where each of the contrada priori and sometimes the captains, meet,” he explains. “It’s like our Camelot.” In the weeks leading up to the Palio, this hall is one of myriad spots around the city where contrade captains convene to collaborate on plans and conspire against an enemy in secret.

“These meetings are the captain’s territory, and no one knows what’s discussed or brokered,” says Boschi. “What the captain does is create a race that is difficult for his adversaries to win. If you have a horse that you know won’t win, your objective becomes to destroy your enemy’s chances.” 

Allies help each other out, and often neutral contrade will be lured into a plan by cash or other favours. “Consider someone with no real enemies or alliances – a neutral contrada – has a good horse. You may strategise with them and say, ‘I will help you win,’ so another contrada – your enemy – can’t.”

In these plots anything goes. A few thousand euros could be thrown someone’s way to thwack an enemy jockey, or maybe a captain will offer a few thousand more to covertly knock a jockey down on the course’s infamous San Martino curve, the 51-degree bend that has been the literal downfall of many a Palio steed over the years.

Of course, not all contrade use sinister methods to win – but it’s the intrigue that really gets the locals talking. Later that night, our taxi driver Andrea is keen to talk Palio. In the race last August, the far-eastern contrada of Nicchio (Seashell) was the only ward without a rival in the race – and so was widely tipped to win. Yet Nicchio’s jockey hit the dirt on the second lap, with Oca (Goose) going on to win the race.

“Word is,” Andrea divulges, voice lowered for pending scandal, “that Montone, Nicchio’s sworn enemy, paid off Torre, ally of Oca, to knock Nicchio down.” He speculates the captains engineered the whole thing leading up to the race. And that the Torre jockey, undertaking the glorious sacrifice of throwing his own race to help an ally, was likely hailed a Palio martyr – pocketing a tidy stack of cash in the process. Such is the very confusing world of the Palio.

The jockeys have traditionally held a perverse position of power in the race. Scouted from all over Italy, they are the Palio’s mercenaries – historically coming to turn a profit, with no clear loyalty to any contrada. This, combined with the Palio’s relative lawlessness, used to mean that while the captains called the shots, the jockeys ran the show, brokering deals with contrade and then breaking the terms, or bribing officials and pocketing bribes themselves.

In a 1992 tell-all, legendary Palio jockey Andrea Degortes (nicknamed Aceto, or Vinegar) blasted the Palio’s malicious practices, and admitted to paying off starting officials and others during his 32-year career.  Riders’ antics were so notorious, that fantini – Italian for jockeys – became synonymous with “crooked” in the local tongue.

It’s partly for this reason that contrade pin their jockeys with two bodyguards three days before the race. In theory it’s for safety (“Rivals could try to harm us,” states ex-jockey Coghe), but in practice it’s to supervise. Unlike horses, jockeys could potentially be flipped  to conspire against their own contrada. So for 72 hours before the Palio, they live in a mini police state: escape from the contrada is limited, conversations are monitored and mobile phones are taken away. At no time are the jockeys left unattended.

To get a view from a current jockey we head 14km east of Siena, through the cypress-studded Tuscan countryside, to Scuderie Bruschelli, the eponymous farm and stables of current Palio poster jockey Luigi Bruschelli. Bruschelli is a big deal – he’s won 13 Palios, and if he wins in the race this August he’ll equal Degortes’s all-time record of 14 wins.

His sprawling Tuscan country ranch – all raw timber and glass walls, looking across the Vagliagli valley – is like a shrine to him and his horses. There are glass-sculpted horse busts, giant images of the man on horseback, and one of a topless Bruschelli drawing a horse’s head close to his own. A whole side room is dedicated to his Palio feats – victory ribbons and silks, dented race helmets, and a curved metal rod that was inserted into his smashed knee after one gruelling race. “Eight days after that beauty came out, I was back on the horse!” he beams. The man himself wears a pink polo shirt, khakis and a dazzling smile, looking every inch the Palio poster boy.

While most of the people we speak to seem to delight in tales of Palio skulduggery, the media-savvy Bruschelli is at pains to point out that things have changed. “The captain does everything and we take our cues from him. The biggest part of his strategy is to find the best jockey, so we really need to prove ourselves as being reliable, trustworthy and on the ball. In general us jockeys realised years ago that we had to straighten up, or else we’d be out of a job.”

If that’s the case, and it may be, it has hardly ushered in a new wave of transparency, something not helped by the fact that contrade still hire lip-readers to watch rival jockeys before races. The agreements brokered today between a captain and his jockey remain a well-guarded secret. Ask anyone how much a jockey makes and you’ll get hit with a definitive “nessuno lo sa” (“no one knows”), though there’s talk of six-figure pay. Certainly, Bruschelli doesn’t seem to be doing badly.

For the very different perspective of an insider who walked away from this scene, we head half an hour out of Siena to meet Massimo Coghe, a 33-race veteran, at his own stables. The quick-mouthed Sardinian with weathered, worn skin chats to us inside his own victory hall, a barn-like room on the right side of his family’s home. It’s loaded with his memorabilia, including a glass case with the silks he wore in all three of his wins and blown-up photos of him being carried out of the Piazza by elated contradaioli immediately after a win for Pantera. Despite this trove of laudatory relics, Coghe quit the Palio in 2006 after 33 rides, citing “irreconcilable differences” with certain ways the race gets run. “Some jockeys are sick for this thing,” he says.

Like so many Palio riders, Coghe has his own tale of terror from the frontlines. In 1996, an especially dubious display of collusion saw the jockey of Bruco (Caterpillar), nicknamed Cianchino, pay off others in an attempt to stifle » the efforts of Coghe, who was the favourite to win for Aquila.

At the start rope, the jockey for Pantera, Spirito, held Coghe back by his jersey, ripping the fabric and subsequently disqualifying him from the race. Bruco won that Palio. And Spirito was banned from racing for 10 years.

But Coghe contends this is all just a part of how the Palio works. “The fantini are just the mercenary assassins paid to defend the banners of the contrade. Everything done is completely within the expectations of those who come to fight.” When it comes to the Palio, it seems that all is fair in love and war.  ilpalio.org
The next Palio is on 16 August. Siena is under two hours’ drive from Pisa; Norwegian flies to Pisa from Oslo, Copenhagen and Stockholm. Book flights, a hotel and a rental car at norwegian.com


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