The Palio di Siena is more than a horse race. If you thought the Grand National was the supreme test of horse and jockey, you haven’t seen anything yet! The Palio could be described as a horse race which blends elements of Fight Club and Harry Potter with a big dose of Machiavellian subterfuge thrown in for good measure.
The race is contested twice a year in the Italian town of Siena. For over 800 years the seventeen districts of the town have vied for the honour of winning the coveted banner. The Palio is a hand-painted banner given to the winning district. Along with the banner comes bragging rights over your neighbours. A few years ago, when the Eagle district beat their fierce rivals Panther (see what I mean about Harry Potter?) They celebrated by ascending a local church tower and blasting out a mocking message to the defeated foes below. The audio message, which was on a loop, played 24 hours a day for the next 30 days!
The race itself is extremely dangerous for both horse and rider. Cosima Spender, the documentary filmmaker does a fantastic job of conveying the excitement on and off the course. The tight corners of the track and the intensity of the crowd are perfectly captured. The race lasts just 90 seconds, with three clockwise laps around the third-of-a-mile course. During the race, jockeys are allowed to use their whips on the horses and each other. Pulling a rival from his horse is considered unsporting but an acceptable tactic, and surprisingly easy to do as the jockeys ride bareback. At times this feels like watching a scene from Mad Max or playing Mario Cart on a Nintendo.
Much of the film is dedicated to covering the rivalries between the districts and jockeys. Clandestine meetings reveal hidden allegiances and subterfuge, which can help or hinder a jockeys chance of winning. However, should the crowd suspect a rider has thrown the race, ugly scenes will occur. It’s not unknown for a jockey to be severely beaten by disappointed fans. All in all this documentary is a fascinating look at a centuries-old Italian tradition. Beautifully shot in a stunning location, you’d be mad to miss this, but not as crazy as those who take part in the race!