The Palio is run to celebrate the miraculous apparition of the Virgin Mary near the old houses that belonged to Provenzano Salvani. The holy apparition was therefore called "Madonna di Provenzano" in whose honour the very first Palio was run on August 16, 1656. The Palio was run for the first time in 1701 in honour of the "Madonna dell'Assunta" the patroness and Advocate of Siena through all the tragic events since she protected the Sienese militia at the famous battle of Monteaperti against the Florentines. (link)This event is basically Italian horse racing on crack. (Speed was too calm for it.) Biannually, 10 horses compete in a race around a dirt track in a plaza in the middle of town known as Piazza del Campo.
It gets better.
Siena is divided up into 17 Contradas - what we might call districts or regions. Although the 17 Contradas are all just small sections of the larger city, they are comparable to towns of their owns - each having its own center, its own church, its own ruling body, its own symbol and colors, its own loyalty. The Contradas have distinct names, often associated with the symbol representing the Contrada. Translated in English, there's Eagle, Owl, Snail, Caterpillar, Dragon, She-Wolf (th official symbol of Siena) and more. (See the list here.)
As you can imagine, and knowing the Italians as you may or may not, the citizens of Siena feel an intense loyalty to their Contrada. Hence, Il Palio is not just an ordinary horse race. It is one frought with strong emotions, emotions dating back for centuries.
You'll note that there are 10 horses racing and 17 Contradas. Contradas that did not participate in that specific race the year before are automatically in it. The remaining slots are filled by a random draw from the remaining Contradas.
Although the race itself is quite short (a minute and a half or so), the preparations leading up to it and those activities that follow are nothing short of wondrous. There are trials, a parade, flag-waving, blessings (most notably of the horses in the Contradas' respective church), feasts and celebrations. On the day of Il Palio, The Campo is packed with people. Everyone in town and more. Imagine Times Square on the Millenium eve and double it. Over 50,000 people packed into a tiny historic square. That alone is amazing. But wait for the race.
The horses are blessed. (Note that it is considered good luck should the Contrada's steed relieve itself - aka defecate - in the church.) The people are packed in the square twice as tight as sardines. The horses are at the starting rope, already jockeying for position. (Some say that the minutes before the race are as important as the race itself.) Mattresses have been piled in the more dangerous corners to cushion any wayward jockeys. As the tension rings high - they're off! Sprinting around the square, three circuits must the horses make to win. (And note that a rider-less horse may win for it is the horse, not the jockey, that must cross the finishing line.) The danger is apparent as the great beasts pound along on the imported, packed dirt. A few have already crashed in the sides and are even now picking themselves up and redoubling their efforts. Around and around they go as the crowd roars, each person cheering on their champion. At last! Three circuits have been made and the victory line is reached. One is declared the winner amidst great contest and disapproval. Remember, of the 10 interested Contradas only one can call itself the victor. This leaves 9 groups of very unhappy Sienans. Very unhappy Sienans. Then the partying begins and everyone is off for a feast the likes of which put Hogwarts to shame. Wine, wine, food, and wine!
In any case, from what I've seen and read that's what it's like. Some day in the future I will attend one of these fantastic races. If you're interested further I encourage you to check out the 2 italicized links below. We were at The Campo on Aug. 9th or 10th. You have no idea how much we wished our trip extended to the 16th so we could see this thing. Then again, seats are rare and watching it, with a good view that is, is very difficult and potentially expensive. We asked about the bleacher seats right on the outside of the track. I forget the exact price the waitress mentioned but I believe it was in excess of 1,000 euros. Definitely an event best planned well in advance - hotel, seats for Il Palio, etc.
I wonder who won today.
(Official Site - Italian) (Official Site - English)
(Official English Page of Official Site)
(An Excellent Article) (TravelNotes.org) (A Brief Account)