"The World's Wildest Horse Race"
Held twice each summer— July 2 and August 16—in Siena, Italy, the Corsa del Palio, "the race of the silk banner," is a 90 second bareback horse race with no equal in the world. The race began in the 13th century, perhaps as a descendant of Roman military training. Though it is held in honor of the Virgin Mary, the race is amazingly anarchic. The rules allow any bribery, and jockeys are allowed to whip their own horse and other horses and jockeys with their oxhide whips. The only restriction that a jockey cannot grab the reins of another horse. The culmination of months of preparation and four days of festivities, each race lasts only 90 seconds as the horses complete three 330-meter circuits of the roughly semi-circular Piazza del Campo. Though millions of lira (now Euro, as =nerochiaro= points out...) are exchanged unofficially, the only official prize for the winning of the Il Palio is a hand-painted silk banner (the Palio) bearing a portrait of the Virgin Mary.
Siena, Italy, is divided into 17 contrade, neighborhoods bearing the name of an animal or object and having their own government, church, patron saint, and museum. Contrada make alliances with and wage feuds against neighbors. Each of the two races involves ten contrade, which are selected to race by a drawing of lots. After the July race, the seven contrade which didn't comptete are guaranteed a berth in August, with three additional contrade chosen at random from among the ten who raced in July. Rivalries and competition between the contrade are fierce: horses have been drugged and jockeys kidnapped to prevent racing.
The horses used in the race are mostly mezzo sangue, or "half-bloods," who come from the Maremma region of southwest Tuscany. Jockeys are often the butteri, or cowboys, of Maremma. Their horses race nudi (naked), wearing only bridles. On the day of the race, horses are blessed in their contrade's church, the priest telling them to "Go forth and return a winner." It is considered a good omen if the horse poops in the church. Ten evenly-matched horses are selected in a ritual of trials conducted by the contrada's captains. Lots are used to assign horses to each contrade. After the horse is assigned, it cannot be replaced, so if a horse is hurt or dies its contrade is out of the race. Naturally, the horses are well guarded by their contrada. During the race riders and horses often fall negotiating one of the two ninety degree turns on the track, and the corners are padded with mattresses to minimize injury. A riderless horse, however, can still win the race if it crosses the finish line.
Just a short note: the festivals preceding the race are nearly as important to the people of Siena as the race itself, reflecting centuries of heritage. The people of Siena, understandably, look down upon tourists who come just for the "wild and crazy" race. The Corsa del Palio means a lot to the people of Siena, so it should be regarded with respect by ignorant tourists. (...and ignorant noders like me, I'm sure!)
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More information can be found at http://www.ilpaliodisiena.com/, an official Italian site about the race. It has sections in several different languages, including English, and one can learn a lot from its graphics and by interpreting the Italian, if one doesn't know the language.
The majority of the information in this writeup, however, came from an August 2002 issue of Smithsonian magazine. http://www.smithsonianmag.com
Thanks to =nerochiaro= for helping with translation and with this writeup in general!