One might wonder how horses are chosen for the Palio. The reality is that most horses offered up by their hopeful owners only have a slim chance of making it to Palio day. While more than 100 horses are often placed in contention for possible Palio consideration, only ten are allowed to race. It is safe to say that most Siena visitors looking forward to the Palio don’t get to see the highly involved process of selection and testing that occurs behind the scenes, and weeks in advance. Guiding the entire process is a highly prescribed approach spelled out within a rigorous set of protocols for the care, treatment, and training of Palio horses. There is even a specially constructed track “simulator” located outside of Siena, in the village of Mociano. As a virtual replica of the track in Piazza del Campo, the Mociano training grounds allow jockeys and horses alike to experience certain Palio conditions and to judge whether a particular horse is capable of handling the real thing.
Beyond Mociano, the first stop for any owner who wishes to submit a horse for the Palio is at the previsite (veterinary assessments). These initial tests occur at the city’s approved veterinary clinic, Il Ceppo, at least several weeks before the actual Palio race. Horses can and do get rejected at this phase, even before they touch the turf in the Campo. The number of horses registered for the previsite can surpass 100, as with the 106 steeds that were assessed for the August 2018 Palio.
The process then moves to the actual Piazza del Campo in Siena, soon after a scientifically precise mixture of dirt is laid down on the periphery of the public square to serve as the race track. Potential horses are brought to the freshly laid track very early in the morning to be tested and trained where they will race if chosen. This event is the prove regolamentate, known until recently as the prove di notte (night trials), and are still occasionally referred to as such. The summer versions are held at an annoyingly early time of day, between 6:00 and 7:00 a.m., just as dawn is starting to break across Siena. Despite my sleepy eyes, I have managed to drag myself to at least two of these events over the years, out of sheer curiosity if nothing else. Horse owners and jockeys use the track to practice various skills without the stress of actual racing conditions. In previous decades, the night trials lived up to their name. Jockeys brought horses to the Campo in secrecy to run the track in the dead of night, hoping not to publicly divulge any special skills a particular horse might bring to the Palio. Yes, a lot of people take these things very seriously.
My first experience with the 6:00 a.m. edition a few years ago proved startling for two reasons. First, the streets of Siena were still pin-drop silent around that time in the calm, muggy (if pleasantly chilly) morning air. Immediately upon turning into the Campo from a side street, however, it seemed as though I had suddenly entered an alternate universe and time zone. The mood turned instantly from tranquil to festive, with an accompanying human energy level more typical of daytime. People more awake than me were already in the bleachers, while others in the center of the Campo were conversing and peripherally screening the action. It was one of the most surreal scenes I have ever witnessed.
My second observation was that many of the younger people in attendance were clearly inebriated from challenging themselves to pull “all-nighters” before the trials began at sunrise. Because many of them were up beyond midnight already, their logic was to stay awake for a few hours longer until the first Palio event. The result, I somewhat shockingly discovered, was a tired Campo littered high with various trash, beer cans, and wine bottles. The scene looked like the aftermath of a small tornado with its devastating trail of debris.
However, it is also quite possible that I had unwittingly witnessed Siena’s very last occurrence of this questionable tradition. My follow-up experience one year later found a much cleaner Campo with a greater police presence. I suspect that the city administration had lost its patience with having their esteemed public space defiled by the overnight trash of idealistic youth.
Although they still occur one day before the standard four days of the Palio, the prove regolamentate still tend to attract a good number of Senesi. Some tourists will also hang around to check out the latest pool of steeds. The circling of the Campo by the horses provides the first truly emotional indication that the Palio has finally arrived at the city’s doorstep.
Of all the horses first assessed at Il Ceppo, a small minority of experienced horses that have previously raced Palio are allowed to skip these prove. They are instead advanced straight to the next day’s tratta, for the next stage of the selection process. But the majority of the horses approved at Il Ceppo end up here, forced to wake up in their warm stables at the crack of dawn along with their owners, jockeys, and a smattering of determined fans. There is no predetermined schedule or official launch from the starting line. Rather, a jockey can test a horse’s capabilities as he sees fit, with or without any potential competitors nearby. Following the regolamentate, more horses may be weeded out, with the rest being approved to move on to the next day’s tratta.
The tratta marks the first of the four days of the Palio and is held approximately between 9:00 and 11:00 AM in the Campo. Usually around 30 steeds make it to this phase, which means there is still only a small chance of a particular horse being chosen for the final race. This is the first event we can see horses run in pseudo-Palio conditions. Batteries of 5-7 horses line up at the mossa (starting line) and practice launching together off the starting line. They might appear to be racing for some time, so the start of each battery can be an exciting and adrenalin-filled affair. Once launched from the mossa, however, jockeys can slow down and train their respective steeds on any number of skills. At this stage, jockeys are not yet wearing their specific contrada outfits, since the horses have not yet been matched by lottery to the contrade that will race them. Instead, it’s fun to see all jockeys wearing the same black-and-white outfits that represent the city’s official “balzana,” or herald. Occasionally the less experienced jockeys can be seen flying off their steeds at the most hazardous turn of San Martino, leaving their confused steeds to humorously run around the track until they finally run out of energy. Usually five or six batteries of horses are run, with a few horses sometimes included twice if more evaluations are warranted.
For visitors not yet familiar with the Palio, the tratta provides a nearly stress-free way to enjoy learning about this centuries-old race. If one shows up in the center of the Campo about a half hour before it begins (say, an 8:30 AM arrival for the 9:00 start in July), it is easy to find a great view along one of the barriers to enjoy the otherwise odd sight of horses careening around a European city square with hopeful jockeys trying desperately not to fall off. This is not something to be taken for granted or taken lightly.
Following the tratta, the captains of all ten contrade running in the Palio will make their collective final decision on which ten horses will race, thereby completing a dizzying array of pre-trials and batteries of tests. Usually the captains will choose a mix of horses, blending Palio veterans and previous winners with younger novices that have never raced before (they are required to be at least four years old, however). In another oddity of this Senese tradition, it is not necessarily the fastest horses that will be chosen. Rather, captains want to assure their respective contrade that they will have a chance to win with a mediocre set of steeds. While a horse’s stamina—and sometimes past experience—is certainly important to meet the rigors of this track, its speed is not necessarily the most important factor.
A few hours following the tratta, the ten contrade chosen to race in the Palio will march by the hundreds to the Campo for the dramatic Assignment of the Horses (see blog post) later that afternoon. Now with each horse matched by lottery to the ten contrade, the game is on. Six more rigorous trials await these ten chosen steeds before finally they reach the coveted goal, the actual Palio race and a shot at the prized Palio banner, the drappellone. Whew!
NOTE: If you happened to enjoy this post and are left wanting more, a full personal account of a tratta and the Assignment of the Horses can be found in my book, Living the Palio (latest 2020 edition).