Bucket List Horse Races: The Palio di Siena; Italy’s Oldest Horse Race – Part 1

If you are reading this, chances are you love horse racing and are very passionate about the sport like I am. I now know where this passion derived. Having Italian ancestry, on my bucket list of horse races to see, is the “Palio di Siena” that is run twice a year in the Tuscan town of Siena.

By tradition, the first leg of “The Palio” is run on July 2nd and the second leg on August 16th. It doesn’t matter what day of the week each race falls on, the whole town of Siena builds itself around these two dates.

The Palio of Siena dates back 363 years, first being run in 1656. Held in honor of the Virgin Mary. The second leg in August is held in honor of her Assumption into heaven. The Palio di Siena is the oldest horse race in Italy as well as one of the oldest active horse races in the world

Competing in the race are 10 of the 17 city wards “contrade.” A really excellent and informative guide on the 17 contrade can be found by clicking HERE. This site gives a breakdown on each contrada, their colors, mottos, patron saints, professions as well as their total victories. For example, as a pharmacist, I would align best with the Pantera (The Panther) contrada which is for chemists and grocers. Their patron saint is Saint John The Baptist. Their colors are red, blue and white. Their flag is shown below.

I vacationed in Italy a few years back and had to make a stop in Siena just to see this charming town and where the famous race was run (the Piazza del Campo). The Piazza del Campo constitutes the oldest horse track in the world (pictures below).

The Palio course, shown above, is shorter than a quarter mile: 339 meters or 0.21 miles. The race is three laps long, so the total race distance is about 2/3rds of a mile.

One of the most unique things about this horse race is the pageantry and religious components tied to it. To put it bluntly, this is like the ultimate Renaissance festival in a town that flourished during the Italian Renaissance. But it’s so much more, a religious festival with a sporting event attached to it. A sporting event that is like no other, imagine a horse in church?

Benediction of the Horse and Jockey

The Benediction of the horse and jockey takes place July 2nd at 3:30 PM. This blessing is conducted in the respective contrada churches. The priest concludes the mysterious rite with a wish that seems like an order: Go and return victorious! If you notice in the video linked below, the priest shouts this and sort of scares the horse Polonski.

The video below gives you an outstanding overview of everything involved with a Palio.

The first leg is set for July 2nd at 7:30 PM local time which would be 1:30 PM EST, 12:30 PM CST, 11:30 AM MST and 10:30 AM PST.

Stay tuned for Part 2 which I will post sometime Monday July 1st.

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