There is horse racing, and then there is the Palio, the no-holds-barred, bareback mad dash that defines the town of Siena, Italy.
As I stand with thousands of others on Siena's magnificent main square to witness this centuries-old tradition, I find myself wishing Baltimore had its own Palio.
Oh sure, we have horse racing. We have one of the grandest races of them all, the Preakness Stakes, which takes place next week.
But the Palio is much more than a horse race. It is a dramatic testimony to Sienese history, passion and, above all, neighborhood pride.
To get some concept of the Palio, imagine that each horse in the Preakness represented one of Baltimore's neighborhoods. Now imagine that the race was held not at Pimlico, but on a temporary track laid out on War Memorial Plaza downtown, with thousands of spectators crammed into a makeshift infield.
Then picture the throng from the victorious neighborhood, in song, making their way back to Little Italy or Druid Hill or Canton, where the celebration would go on through the night.
The Palio -- so named for the exquisite, hand-painted silk banner, or palio, presented to the winning contrada, or neighborhood -- is held annually July 2 and Aug. 16. The Sienese think about the races 363 other days of the year.
Passion runs deep
A picturesque, medieval city of 60,000 residents set amid the olive groves and vineyards of Tuscany, Siena boasts a spectacular duomo -- cathedral -- and impressive frescoes. It is a worthwhile stop on any Italian itinerary, but a visit on Palio day is unforgettable.
The Palio dates to at least 1310, when Siena had as many as 42 contrade that provided militia support for the city's defense -- a necessity given the city's bitter rivalry with Florence, 40 miles to the north.
Over time, the number of contrade was whittled to its current 17. Each neighborhood is named after an animal or object -- Istrice (Porcupine), Torre (Tower), Drago (Dragon), Onda (Wave) -- and each has its own museum, social club, church and colors.
Contrada passion runs deep. Children are born into the contrada of their parents and often marry within the contrada. Families have been known to spread a bucket of contrada dirt beneath a hospital table when a baby is delivered.
Rivalries also run deep, and for every contrada, there are two objectives in the Palio: One is to win, and the other is to make sure one's archrival doesn't win.
Carnage on corner
Only 10 of the 17 contrade take part in each Palio, a fact that can be appreciated after seeing the track.
Siena's main square, the Piazza del Campo, was laid out in the 12th century on the site of a Roman forum and was called "the most beautiful square in Italy" by Renaissance writer Montaigne.
But it bears no resemblance to a racetrack. Its surface is brick; dirt is trucked in for the race. Nor is it a square -- it's shaped more like a scallop shell, with a moderate slope. So this racetrack is neither oval nor flat, and is complicated further by the famed San Martino corner, a murderous 90-degree, downhill turn at the Via San Martino that has been the site of scores of accidents.
The walls along the San Martino corner are lined with mattresses, but even if a jockey falls there, all is not lost. In the Palio, the first horse to cross the finish line is the winner, regardless of whether the jockey has managed to stay on board.
In the 18th century, in part to limit the carnage caused by the San Martino corner, the Palio field was limited to 10 -- the seven contrade omitted from the previous race and three others drawn by lot. The horses are randomly assigned to the contrade after a series of trial runs and physical exams.
And although there is no official betting on the Palio -- no pari-mutuel windows or tote boards here -- plenty of money changes hands. In clandestine meetings, deals are brokered with allies and jockeys. The jockeys, imports from places like Maremma and Sicily, are paid handsomely -- and not always just to win.
In the 1855 Palio, an accomplished jockey named Francesco Santini was aboard one of the best horses in the field, but crashed at the San Martino corner. When confronted after the race, Santini reportedly explained he had been offered 140 lire to race, but a rival contrada had offered him 170 lire to crash.
Double-crossing jockeys have been known to gallop out of the piazza and right out of town when the race ends.
The run-up to the race includes a final trial heat at 9 a.m. -- viewed by many as a final chance for jockeys to make or break deals -- and the mid-afternoon Blessing of the Horse in each contrada church. (It is considered good luck if the horse leaves a little manure near the altar.)
For tourists, seats in the premium balconies overlooking the piazza or in the bleachers lining the outside of the track ($350 or more) are hard to come by. And although the view isn't quite as good from the sloping brick infield, at least the price is right -- free.