On the day of the Palio Siena comes alive with a thousand colours, flags and people who come here from all over the world, not to mention the excitement of the local inhabitants supporting their Contrade.
By the tufa track laid down on the Piazza del Campo, stands the verrocchio, a winch with a flag that is operated by a pedal. It was invented in 1838 by Tiberio Bichi Borghesi. The person who operates the verrocchio is the mossiere, who is seated nearby. On the opposite side of the square is the mortaretto that signals with a shot that the track should be freed when the horses are about to enter, as well as when there has been a false start and when the race is finished. Next to the mortaretto there is the so-called bandierino, a small flag with the black and white coat of arms of the city, marking the arrival point of the Palio.
Once the magnificent procession, with its over 700 participants, has entered the square, a shot from the mortaretto signals the entrance of the ten horses, mounted bareback. Each jockey is armed with a nerbo, a special kind of crop, with his head protected by a metal helmet to fend off the blows of his adversaries. The contestants line up at the canapi starting ropes according to the lots drawn only a few minutes previously.
The tension is enormous and any Senese can testify that victory can only be gained by an equal combination of the jockey’s skill, the horse’s strength, and luck. The start of the race, known as la mossa, is therefore of fundamental importance. A moment’s hesitation or the badly positioned horse of an adversary can mean the bitterest of defeats.
At this point the mossiere is handed an envelope containing the names of the first three horses that should enter and he calls out the order, with the horses entering one by one. Once nine of the horses are lined up in order at the ropes, the tenth horse enters at a gallop and the ropes drop, thereby signalling the start. The race is run clockwise for three turns round the square, and is over in roughly one and a half minutes. A loud shot from the mortaretto signals that the race is over.
Quite often the winner of the Palio is decided at the infamous San Martino curve, the most dangerous section of the circuit in that it combines a sharp curve preceded by a long downhill section.
Once the winning horse has crossed the finishing line, the members of the winning Contrada flock into the square to take hold of the Palio, known also as il cencio, a finely painted silk banner. The Palio will be displayed in the museum of the winning Contrada, where celebrations continue into the night and the winning horse is feted by the crowd.