The plaza is getting crowded. Its about an hour before the race is to start and we are forced to get up from our spots on the ground lest we get trampled by the pressing masses. Large contingents of fans from each contrada are concentrated in various regions of the inner plaza, and they sporadically erupt in loud bouts of cheering. The energy of the spectators seems to reverberate through the crowd like waves on a turbulent sea. Back and forth go the chants, each contrada doubtlessly pronouncing their superiority while hurling disparaging insults at their rival neighborhoods. Though our paltry grasp of Italian limited our comprehension, it didn’t stop us from taking part and throwing in a few cheers of our own for good measure- Jake’s recent submersion in English Premier League football helped with that. Kacey and I of course where rooting for the Fish contrada, while Jackie threw her lot in with the Shells, and Jake, Meg and Pat chose the Elephants for their banner.
The tension of anticipation in the crowd seemed to grow with every passing minute, and it was hard to guess what would happen next. The cheers got louder as a troop of Italian dragoons trotted on to the track with military precision, and they made their way around the oval in a stately parade. Then, without warning they started to gallop at speed- it was a full on cavalry charge! They rushed around the track with reckless abandon, swords drawn and thrust before them ready for the attack. I am not really familiar with Italy’s military success throughout history, but I can say I think it would be very hard to stand one’s ground when presented with the business end of those charging sabers- if they didn’t win a few battles using this tactic, I don’t know what they did wrong.
The cavalry made a last pass, and exited the Piazza through a side alley. A minute later a giant door opened at the front of the town hall, and the crowd erupted in noise. One by one the horses, with riders colorfully costumed, proceeded out the door onto the track, where an official handed them a traditional, but rather odd, riding crop- a dried bull’s phallus. Depending on the temperament of the crowd, waves of supporting cheers or outbreaks of derisive whistling followed the riders as they made their way 180 degrees around the course to the starting line.
The start of the race is handled in a peculiar way: nine of the ten contestants line up abreast a heavy rope stretched taught across the track, while the tenth rider holds back behind the pack walking his horse in endless circles. The start is totally dependent on him- at his leisure he may bolt towards the line without warning, hopefully catching the other riders unawares. This action signals the start of the race- the rope is immediately dropped while simultaneously a cannon blast sounds, and the horses are off. Of course, there are many false starts and resets, brought on by the anxious and bothered disposition of the nine waiting horses, whose riders try lamely to keep them in line, while the whole situation is aggravated by the relentless feints and fake starts of the tenth horse. Eventually, after about 30 minutes of this tomfoolery in our case, there was a clean start, and the horses truly were off!
From our position in the crowd, it was difficult to see much more than the colorful helmets of the riders go zipping by, over the heads of the spectators in front of us. Even so, I have to admit that I had a better vantage than most due to my height- poor Kacey, Jackie and Meg- they could barely see anything at all! But it didn’t matter too much- you could feel the horses as they raced by, the pounding of their hooves, and the collective surge of the crowd craning their necks to get a view.
Our blue and white Fish horse got out to a good start, but was over taken a few turns in. After the third lap, with at least one rider thrown off, it was a close match between the black Wolf and the green Swan… two turns to go and they were neck and neck, one turn left and the Swan takes a slight lead on the outside track, now the last leg, the Wolf is closing, five lengths to go, two, one… and the Swan wins by a nose! The crowd explodes in noise! Hundreds of fans flood onto the track. A mob of Swan supporters scale the woodwork and pluck the Palio banner from its perch next to the town dignitaries. The whole scene is pandemonium, and just like that, we are all Swans, the whole crowd, cheering and celebrating for victory.