The world's craziest horse race

Our intrepid reporter visits the Palio de Siena

Originally Published: October 23, 2012
By Kenny Mayne | ESPN The Magazine

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TWICE EVERY SUMMER, Siena -- a picturesque medieval city in the heart of Tuscany -- is transformed from a quiet tourist getaway into the setting for the craziest horse race in the world. The Palio di Siena has been run in the city's historic center since 1656, pitting Siena's 17 neighborhoods against one another in a competition so intense that it makes the Kentucky Derby seem like the third race at Aqueduct on a Wednesday.

But here, there is no betting on the horses. They race for a banner. They race for pride. They race so that their next grape crop will be plentiful. As the good people of Siena, a superstitious bunch, tell me: "It is not just a horse race. It is life." And I've never met so many people this passionate about both.

Siena's contrade, or neighborhoods, have feuds dating back centuries. Ten are called to compete each time the Palio is held (once in July, once in August), with each contrada guaranteed at least one race per year.

Our crew is adopted by the Leocorno, or Unicorn, contrada for this year's second race. The Unicorn have two goals in each Palio: Draw a good runner for themselves (each district's horse is chosen at random -- more on that later) and see their archrivals, the Civetta (Owl) contrada, end up with a mule. Leocorno-Civetta is a rivalry akin to Red Sox-Yankees, only with more passion. Imagine if Boston and New York were separated by an alley and had been sharing the same infield for 400 years.

To comprehend the loyalty to one's neighborhood, you first have to understand how a precinct in Siena operates. It's possible to live in many American neighborhoods for years without knowing the name of the family four doors down. In the Unicorn contrada, everyone knows everyone. During Palio week, festive districtwide dinners are held outdoors on a dozen 50-foot-long picnic tables each night. Waiters and waitresses reject tips because they are just doing their duty. The guy who runs the local winery brings all the vino. Everyone pitches in. Everyone cleans up. Everyone comes back and does it again each night of Palio week.

But even outside of Palio week, the bond is tight. As one man tells us, "I have several fathers and several mothers and more brothers and sisters than just in my family." Christmas and birthdays must be a burden, but it works for the people of Siena.

Aside from the race itself, the most important event of Palio week is the lottery, held three days before the race. Each neighborhood marches to the Piazza del Campo, where the luck of the draw determines who gets Secretariat and who ends up with a nag from the pool of 10 mixed-breed horses (no purebreds are allowed) provided free by local stables.

Our friends from the Unicorn neighborhood land an inferior horse. His official name is Nobile Nilo, which translates roughly to "We have no shot at winning." After feckless performances in the six trial races, his nickname among the people of the contrada is Immobile Nilo.

In Unicorn-land, expectations are lowered. The Owls -- cavil! -- have drawn one of the favorites. Winning the race is a long shot, so preventing the enemy from doing so becomes the goal. It's hard to secure a top jockey when you have a less-than-stellar horse, but the Unicorns eventually find a young man they nickname Hail Storm. He has only one practice to prepare for his first Palio, but Hail Storm and his dark horse make the most of it, picking a fight with the rival Owl rider and his mount at the start of the last trial race. A message has been delivered, and tensions between the Owls and the Unicorns have reached a boiling point. Their differences will be settled on the course the next day. After all, anything can happen in a horse race, especially one run on the streets.

Did I mention that the Palio is not held at a track? Hundreds of tons of tuff, a mix of dirt and sand, are dumped on the cobblestone walkways of the piazza. One bad step and a horse could land in the lap of a diner at a restaurant or hit the wall of the Torre del Mangia, the bell tower that rises high above the square. Fifty horses have died either preparing for or during the Palio since the 1970s, prompting animal activists to protest and officials to adopt rules ranging from erecting safety barriers to detecting blood doping to testing jockeys for liquid courage. It is not uncommon for a few of the riders to be thrown off their bareback horses while making the treacherous turns in the piazza. The Palio is won by the first horse to cross the finish line, with or without its cargo.

As the sun rises on another Palio day in Siena, the people of the Leocorno contrada do as they always have, filing into their neighborhood's ancient ornate church. So does their horse. For centuries, the jockeys and the horses racing in the Palio have received blessings in their contrada's chapel during solemn ceremonies on the morning of the race. Anointed and as ready as he'll ever be, the slow horse plods out of the church. It's obvious that divine intervention is the only hope for the Unicorns this day.

More than 50,000 people pour into the square, claiming every available piece of the infield. One by one, the participating neighborhoods arrive at the piazza in a brilliant procession. I land a prime viewing spot, overlooking the most dangerous turn in racing -- la Curva di San Martino -- a vicious 95-degree angle that is approached downhill. Finally, it is time. Three laps around the shell-shaped Piazza del Campo to claim glory for the contrada. As horse races go, this one may seem foolish. And it's probably a fool's errand to invest my heart so deeply in Nobile Nilo. But I am all-in with the Unicorns. As they say in Siena: "It is life. It is luck. It is the Palio."

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Kenny Mayne

Anchor/Reporter
Kenny Mayne -- known for his offbeat style, dry humor and unique sayings -- has served a variety of roles in more than 10 years with ESPN. He currently provides features to SportsCenter and "The Mayne Event" segments to Sunday NFL Countdown.