Siena's Palio horse race takes place every year on July 2nd and August 16th. In July, the Palio is run to celebrate the holy apparition of the Virgin Mary, called "Madonna di Provenzano" in whose honor the first Palio was run in 1656. In August, the Palio was run for the first time in 1701 in honor of the "Madonna dell'Assunta" who protected the Sienese militia at the famous battle of Montaperti against the Florentines.
The Palio has a secular historical tradition strictly connected with the origin of the ”Contrade” in Siena, the districts into which the town is divided. The "Contrade" are agonistic spectacular institutions having each a seat, an oratory, coat of arms, appellations, titles of nobility, emblems and colors, official representatives, festivities, patron Saints, protectors, their own delimited territories and their own population. Originally the "Contrade" were fifty-nine, at least so it seems, now only seventeen exist, but only ten of which take part in the historical pageant and in the race at each Palio.
The preparations for this parade are slow and methodic like a liturgical procedure. Four days before the event, trial takes place in the "Piazza" which is turned into a racing track.
29 JUNE & 13 AUGUST 7:00 a.m. - Presentation of the horses that will participate in the trials to be selected to run in the Palio (batterie).
29 JUNE & 13 AUGUST 9:00 a.m. - The trials begin (tratta). It is a process by which the horses are matched to the ten Contrade that will participate in the Palio. The horses, after having been examined by veterenarians and considered to be in ideal condition, are divided into groups of 5-7 horses for "batterie" or trials and then allowed to run around the dirt (tufo) track three times to determine if they are suitable to run on this type of track. At the end of the trials, the Captains of the Contrade, in the presence of the Mayor, get together to choose the 10 most suitable horses.
29 JUNE & 13 AUGUST 12.00/13.00 p.m. - On a platform assembled in front of the Municipal Building (Palazzo Pubblico) the drawing for the horses to be assigned to each of the contrade takes place. After each horse is assigned, the "Barbaresco" goes and gets the horse which was drawn and takes it back to the Contrada's stall, accompanied by the members of the contrada (contradaioli).
29 JUNE 19.30 p.m. & 13 AUGUST 19.00 p.m. - The first of the six trial runs preceeding the Palio. By means of these trials the condition of both the horse and the jockey (fantino) can be verified. For each trial the horse is accompanied to the "Entrone" (courtyard entrance of the Municipal Building) from the Contrada's stall by a large group of contrada memebers who often sing traditional songs. In order to see the trials, it is necessary to get a place in the square or in the stands before the track is cleaned "fatto pulito", that is, cleared out by the Police force. It is also the same for all the other trials.
Each contrada chooses a jockey that can be changed at anytime up until the morning of the Palio. Only the horse cannot be changed. The horses enter the starting block in the order that the contrade will enter into the Piazza the evening of the Palio for the procession.
30 JUNE & 14 AUGUST 9.00 a.m.- Second trial run. The horse line up at the starting line is the reverse of the previous evening.
30 JUNE 19.30 p.m. & 14 AUGUST 19.00 p.m. - Third trial run. The horse line up is the same order as the assigning of the horses to the contrade.
1 JULY & 15 AUGUST 9.00 a.m. - Forth trail run. The horse line up is the reverse of the previous evening.
1 JULY 19.30 p.m. & 15 AUGUST 19.00 p.m. - "Prova generale" or dress rehersal. The horse line up is according to the number that the horses were assigned on their ears for the drawing.
1 JULY & 15 AUGUST 20.30 p.m. approximately - Dress Rehersal Dinner. In all the neighborhoods of the Contradas who partecipate in the Palio race, the leaders, contrada members, guests and even tourists gather for a dinner in honor of the protagonists of the Palio. At the head table the jokeys is present with the leaders of the contrada.
There are many songs, speaches and toasts made for a successfull race.
After dinner, the Captains and their assistants go to meet the other leaders of the contradas with whom they are friends to make secret agreements to favor either their own victory or that of their friends contrada or to hinder their rival: all on a handshake.
2 JULY & 16 AUGUST 7.45 a.m. - In the Chapel in front of the Municipal Building, the Archbishop celebrates a Mass for all the jockeys, called "La Messa del Fantino".
2 JULY & 16 AUGUST 9.00 a.m. - Last trial run. It is called the "Provaccia" because there is a general indifference by the Contradas.
After this trial, all the Captains and the jockeys meet in the City Hall to enroll the jockey for each Contrada and to present the silk shirts that the jockeys will wear for the race. After the official assignment of the jockeys has been made they cannot be changed.
2 JULY 15.30 p.m. & 16 AUGUST 15.00 p.m. - Benediction of the horse and the jockey. After the members of the historical parade get dressed up in their costumes, in the Contrade that are participating in the Palio, the ritual of the benediction of the horse and the jockey in their respective contrada churches takes place. The priest, concludes the mysterious rite, with a wish that is almost an order: Go and return victorious!
After which, the historical parade participants of the Contradas and of the city, parede across the old town center, making stops and waving flags in: Piazza Salimbeni, "Casino dei Nobili", in front of the Chigi Saracini Palace, and in Piazza del Duomo.
2 JULY 16.30 p.m. & 16 AUGUST 15.50 p.m. - The procession leaves the courtyard of Palazzo del Governo in Piazza del Duomo, and heads for the Piazza del Campo.
2 JULY 17.20 p.m. & 16 AUGUST 16.50 p.m. - The historical parade enters the square, according to the order of the first trial run.
2 JULY 19.30 p.m. & 16 AUGUST 19.00 p.m. - The Palio banner is hoisted up onto the Judges Stand while the final flag waving ritual of the seventeen flag wavers takes place.
The jockeys are dressed with the colors of the quarter, wear a metal helmet and "ride" without a saddle. Tension is very high in the square, it's a magical moment.
After the start, the horses are launched in a furious gallop, which can be violent and dangerous. The horse race is very fast: just one minute and a half to complete 3 laps around the square. The Palio finishes in the streets of the victorious "contrada" where people celebrate the happy event in a most joyous way. Everybody can participate in the rejoicing.