World's Wildest Horse Race

A team of white oxen haul the palio—racing's oldest prize—around the crowded public square of ancient Siena to prepare the way for a centuries-old contest
August 29, 1954

Louisville and Epsom have their Derbys, Goshen its Hambletonian, but no race fans, anywhere, have a contest so old or so rough as Siena's Palio, run every July and August—except in time of plague and siege—for close to 400 years. As shown on the following pages, the opening ceremonies are brilliant in pomp and pageantry. White oxen haul the treasured victory banner (palio) over the course—Siena's vast public square; and representatives of the ancient Italian city's 17 boroughs troop ceremoniously around, led by armored knights and brilliantly-dressed men-at-arms.

Comes race time—and delirium takes over.

The horses have been selected more for durability than for bloodlines; the jockeys have been picked for strength. Partisans of the rival boroughs (which bear such symbolic names as Goose, Worm, Unicorn, Giraffe and Snail) may have tried to fix the result by doping horses and bribing jockeys. But knowledge of a fix only heightens the excitement.

Last week the horses went to the post again, just as their predecessors have done since the time of the Medici. Three times they circled the dirt-covered cobblestoned square (about five furlongs, all told). As always, iron-helmeted riders sought advantage by lashing one another with whips of tough beef sinew, the horses swerved and bumped and jockeys risked their lives on the rock-hard track.

The winner, Gaudenzia with Marino Lupi up, covered the course in one minute, 21 seconds to send his cheering sponsors from Giraffe borough trooping off with the treasured Palio. Gaudenzia's success was spectacular, for he had also won the July Palio for Wave borough.

His work completed, Jockey Lupi collected the traditional purse of the winning rider: 360 lire (about 55¢).

PHOTOJERRY COOKE TWO PHOTOSJERRY COOKEMASS PROCESSION of 500 men-at-arms, flag-bearers and armored captains from the city's 17 boroughs circles broad public square and most of Siena's 60,000 inhabitants (above), then disperses before the city hall (left) to watch race. PHOTOJERRY COOKEBLESSING CERMONY for Rosella, an aging but sturdy mare, is performed in borough church before local noblewoman Marchesa Ginevra Chigi-Bonelli (center). It is considered a good omen if horse relieves self during ceremony, but also-ran Rosella failed. PHOTOJERRY COOKERISKIN LIVES over earth-covered cobblestone track, riders bring horses to dangerous turn on shell-shaped course. In no-holds-barred race, riders whip one another, sometimes leap from mounts to tackle opponents. PHOTOJERRY COOKEFESTIVE BALLOONS, dolls and toy guns, sold everywhere in Siena on Palio days, hang from railing near city hall's Torre del Mangia, one of Italy's most famous and beautiful towers. PHOTOJERRY COOKEMEDIEVAL TWIRLERS, skillful as any drum major, dexterously manipulate banners outside Siena's striking marble cathedral. PHOTOJERRY COOKERIDERLESS HORSE pounds around dangerous turn after tossing jockey. Unlike flat racers, Palio horses can win if riderless, but this horse lost.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)