Saturday morning a group of us from school met with our guide, Serena, at 8:30 to head to the Piazza del Campo for the first major event of the Palio, determining which horses will compete in the race.
Ultimately only 10 horses run in the Palio but more than twice that number are tested to qualify for the race.
Today, twenty-five horses were divided into five groups and they each ran the Piazza course in three laps. Then the “captains” from the contrade decide which were the ten best horses overall and at 1:00 the horses are randomly paired up with the ten contrade that run in the Palio on Tuesday.
As a reminder, it is a bareback race so very dangerous as the jockeys can easily fall off the horse. Also, there are 17 contrade but only 10 participate in the Palio. The seven contrade that didn’t run in the same period Palio last year (i.e. July vs July Palio, August vs August Palio) are automatically in the race and then there is some kind of straw-draw to decide on the other three additional contrade that will race.
It was quite exciting! The Piazza was packed by 8:45. A gunshot-type warning is set off to alert the riders to enter the Piazza and they walk about a quarter of the course up to where the race begins at 9:00 am.
There are no “posts” as this race goes back to medieval times. What happens is that two ropes are drawn taut across the course which essentially corral the horses into a confined area. The horse that drew the last position waits just on the outside of this roped off area until a shot fires to signal the beginning of the race and then both ropes drop, and the race is on!
There is a lot of strategy that occurs in this roped off area before the race begins, i.e. where to position your horse and seemingly anything goes in terms trickery or nudging, and such. The last horse may not necessarily be at a disadvantage as he can possibly get a bit of a run going before the ropes drop. It is all very precarious and unpredictable!
In the first group, one of the first horses out onto the track was extremely nervous about the situation. As the Piazza was so packed and I can imagine that this can be quite overwhelming for some horses. He remained very agitated toward the starting line and you could just tell he wouldn’t be chosen to run in the Palio. Poor guy!
Once in position, the shot rang, the ropes dropped, and the speed at which the horses rounded the course was just remarkable! My camera isn’t good enough to catch the speed!
Somewhere along the course one of the jockeys fell off as one of the horses finished riderless. The speed was amazing!
The subsequent races were a little less fast as I assume the jockeys don’t want to waste too much of the horse’s energy. I have a few shots of the horses coming around the last lap when things started to slow down a bit. The captains aren’t just looking for speed but also which horses are the most manageable, can handle the angles of the track, etc.
My favorite horse (just based on name) was Lo Specialista, #22. He won his heat! Yeah!!! Now to see if he will be chosen and paired with a contrada at 1:00!