Act 2, Scene 19
A Day at the Races

Ancient Rome, The Italian Renaissance, And Postmodern Love

by Frederick Noble

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Day 3 of rollercoaster week.
Up early, a few last-minute errands, and it’s off to Siena for Palio.
I was surprised to find the bus half empty. Apparently lots of students had signed up to go then backed out when they found out lots of riders and horses have been killed over the years.
"Too cruel to the horses", they whined.
"And how was your steak last night?" I asked.

In front of the tower is the piazza where the race is held.

The Palio is a 700 year-old traditional horse race held twice a year in the main piazza. The 8 largest neighborhoods enter their horse and rider, while the 8 smaller neighborhoods draw straws for the other 2 positions. For 300,000 lire you can get a grandstand seat but if you don't mind sitting in the sun on a cobblestone piazza for a couple of hours you can get a free spot in the center of the track. I was happy to be in “the pit” with the rest of the commoners. We went prepared with beverages, snacks and the Delta blanket.


A parade of people representing each neighborhood marches slowly around the piazza, tossing the neighborhood flags high into the air in a little contest to see who can toss the highest.

A cart led by 4 absolutely massive oxen pulls the bigwigs of the town around the track to take their place at the starting line as judges. The riders come through and each neighborhood cheers their hero. The riders pick up their crops, which they’re allowed to use on their horse, another horse or another rider, probably even on the people in the stands if they want to – there are no rules in the race – and line up to start. The sharpest turn on the course is padded along the outer wall with mattresses but another sharp turn is padded with nothing but grandstands full of fans.
A 45 minute series of false starts tried our patience but we'd been warned by my roommate who'd seen it before, "It's 4 hours of waiting for 5 minutes of horse race, and worth it."
Lena’s ability to suck in friendly people around her yielded a couple of locals who spoke perfect English.

They told us most of the details on the race. The blue and gray rider with the goose mascot was this race's favorite as he'd won the previous race. The blue/gray fans where everywhere. We were pulling for the black/white rider as they had the coolest flag and suddenly they’re off!
Unfortunately we were a few rows back from the edge of the course and the crappy camera I had just couldn't capture the action so you'll have to use your imagination. While you're at it, read this next bit in your best horse track announcer voice:
It's yellow in the lead going down the stretch, black and pink close behind. Black is closing in the second turn. It's yellow and black, yellow and black, with pink slipping back. Black is closing, yellow in the lead, yellow, black, yellow, black, black catches him in the turn. Black takes the lead! Black, yellow, pink, black yellow, pink, pink is closing, pink closing, pink passes yellow! Pink is closing, black, pink, yellow, black, pink closing, yellow, black, pink coming up beside, yellow getting left behind. Black looks back and sees pink coming, black and pink, black and pink, neck and neck into the turn but black's got the inside. Into the turn - black scrapes the wall! He bounces off into pink! Pink skitters across the track and into the grandstands! The fans are scattering! The horse is out of control and the rider is down. The horse is rearing into the stands! Yellow passes in the fray as black tries to recover. Yellow in the lead by several lengths, black a weak second and the pack behind. Someone from the stands has grabbed the pink horse's reigns and pulled him down. There's blood on the track but we can't see who's. It's yellow all the way to the finish!

The yellow/green fans jumped the fences in manic glee and the blue/gray fans were all crying. Four hours of waiting for 5 minutes of glory indeed. It reminded me of the chariot race scene from Ben Hur, minus the chariots. Thrilling!
We walked through town to get back to the bus. The folks from the losing neighborhoods were all crying while the winners parade through their enemy's neighborhood and make fun of them, as tradition holds. It's an incredible scene. Everywhere you looked someone was crying either in the joy of victory or the agony of defeat.
On the bus we found out my roommate, John, was in the grandstand right in the bad turn and a kicking hoof missed his head by a few inches. Back home, the lawsuit would be filed by sundown. Here, it’s all part of the festivities.
My kind of country.

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