Diary, Racing,

The most chaotic race in the world

A Fitzdares members’ trip to the Palio in Siena in August proved that there are some races we will simply refuse to take a bet on. The Palio, for those who don’t know, is a vicious horse race run at a breakneck speed through the main piazza of the city, witnessed by tens of thousands. The riders represent ten of the 17 Sienese districts (contrade), and a friendly affair it is not.

It was my first time at the Palio, and no amount of watching the brilliant Cosima Spender documentary, deftly titled Palio (and a hit on Netflix), could prepare me for the out-and-out corruption – or as it is politely now known in racing, integrity issues – of this most Italian of spectacles. First of all, the jockeying doesn’t begin on the start line, or in the week-long negotiations that prelude the two annual Palio races in Siena. It starts with simply getting a ticket.

There are three, shall we say, options for viewing: crowd into the centre of the track with the bulk of the public, pay for an expensive seat in the stands courtesy of a well-connected friend, or take your seat on the balcony of a private house, thanks to a very well-connected friend.

A small caveat was that as we watched from our shaded stand seats (the best Fitzdares could do), a tourist who had elected to stand in the centre desperately clambered out on to the track while suffering from the crush and heat exhaustion. We saw him being struck by a horse. That should give you a steer on where to watch from.

Once this hurdle is navigated, it’s time to plan accordingly. Staying in the city is not advised. We found refuge in the Tuscan countryside for the long weekend and were ferried to the city walls before the race. The centre is locked down to traffic for the Friday evening spectacle. In fact, it’s well advised to leave the city before sunset, as the evening can become quite raucous.

Rival contrade can take the results quite personally and the occasional scuffle, jockey lynching or riot has been known to break out. Not to put you off, of course. In general, you will be warmly welcomed by the city that is deeply proud of a spectacle that has run since 1633.

The pre-race negotiations and bribes are as important as the race itself – it is in essence a game, not a race. My phone started ringing at 10am. Some of our members were in Siena wanting bets on the contrade they had pulled out of hats. We can’t legally take bets in Italy, but honestly, we wouldn’t if we could.

For the Fitzdares members, we were lucky on our visit to see the last ride of the greatest and most Machiavellian hustler of them all. Luigi Bruschelli (‘Gigi’ to his legions of fans and equal number of enemies) is the most successful jockey of modern times – not entirely as a result of his riding prowess. Out of the saddle, Gigi is a master of negotiations, dealing with each contrade’s captain (the people appointed lead negotiators and money movers for each contrada the week before). He also deals directly with the other jockeys just seconds before the off.

There is a huge back story here about the allocation of horses (random) and jockeys (purchased at premiums), but this falls into insignificance. After the two-hour-long procession of giant oxen, ornate carts, the Palio (a large flag), stunning local horses, bands and 5,000 extras dressed in medieval finery, the real action begins.

Starting positions are crucial in this three-lap race, and these are allocated literally seconds before the official start. There’s a reason for that: to prevent bribery. It doesn’t work. What then ensues is one of the most amazing spectacles you will ever see. Multiple false starts allow for desperate haggling, bribing, pleading and negotiations between the jockeys.

Those with the deepest pockets barter to persuade their rivals to throw the race or clear their path. Into this mix is thrown the greatest hand grenade of any sport. The tenth position is given to the “runner-in”, a rider and horse that start the race by running from behind the other horses. As they pass, the enormous start rope is dropped (do you remember the 1993 Grand National? This was worse).

The tenth rider will not run until he is happy with the positions of the other horses – in other words, when his bribe has been paid in full. Through mass tomfoolery, this process of false starts and jockeying can last hours.

On this occasion, we had the most exciting added bonus: Gigi was the runner-in. There ensued negotiations so explicit that it was clear to the thousands what tactics were being drawn. The riders also happen to carry crops made from bulls’ penises (you read that correctly), so these heated exchanges can often become weaponised. Eventually, after three hours sitting on wooden benches, the drama started. The 90 seconds of action were truly spectacular. I think Selva won, but I’ll let you discover what it’s like when you attend.

We immediately decamped to a bar, where Sienese TV reruns the race for five hours. All the drama and excitement is picked over in minute detail. As for Gigi, he didn’t win, but no doubt he got what he wanted from the race. But why was it his final race? A four-year investigation into doping, removing microchips and cruelty had finally concluded that June, and Gigi was off for a five-year prison sentence after the race. One wonders if he will find his stretch tough? Doubt it.

William Woodhams is CEO of Fitzdares.

Please play responsibly