Narrative Excerpt

From: The Tratta

(Sample of the book’s narrative, from Chapter 7.)

We are thrown off our guard as everyone’s adrenaline goes sky high, including mine. Out of the Palazzo Pubblico emerges the first set of seven horses, with jockeys wearing identical outfits and caps. It’s showtime. The outfits are designed simply with alternating black and white stripes—the colors of Siena and its elegantly simple shield or herald. The jockeys this morning have likely been chosen by the owners of the horses or assigned by the city of Siena, given that the horses have not yet been selected to race or assigned to specific contrade.

The horses may not even be the fastest or strongest, which may once again run counter to American logic. The job of the captains is to assure that all horses enjoy at least a chance to win. For statistics fans, we’re talking about the middle of the bell curve here. The playing field is therefore evened out to some extent, with horses at both ends of the continuum—strong and weak—removed from contention.57 To say it another way, the horse variable is minimized. Despite all this, the gossip in Siena for days to come will be centered on which contrade landed the strongest and weakest horses. Sometimes this gossip comes down to which horses are veterans (presumed to be the most desirable) or novices to this particular racetrack (the least desirable).

I continue to liken the jockeys to test pilots, as each is courageously taking on an unfamiliar horse and seeing how it responds to the track and conditions. Hopefully they can come in for a graceful landing without incident. As if on cue, they reach the mossa (start) and circle behind it before lining up at the canapo (rope). At this point, the horses all have numbers on their hindquarters, allowing judges—official or otherwise—to identify them during the tratta. Local media sources and the handouts mentioned earlier provide the names of all the horses that have made it to the tratta, with their respectively assigned numbers.

Although the final ten horses have not yet been selected by the contrada captains, a whole lot of preparation has already led up to this day. Captains or their delegates have likely scouted these horses on their home stomping grounds, and some horses are already known from past Palio or other horse races, returning now for an encore. Further, the city veterinarian has already evaluated the horses, assuring that, following the tratta, no contrada is assigned a sick or injured steed.58 One might imagine the ensuing disappointment of contrada faithful should its horse emerge with the flu.

The horses and their jockeys line up one by one, and with little warning, the first group bolts off the mossa. Within seconds, they accelerate and descend toward the notorious curve of San Martino. They seem too eager, running faster than my gut says is necessary. Some of the horses clearly want to run, essentially dragging their jockeys along with them. These guys are racing—at least that is the outward appearance. I tell the couples from Minnesota with a tone of surprise that they’re moving much faster than I expected.

Today San Martino takes its first victims. We know something is up when a collective gasp of surprise rumbles across the Campo. The mood is replaced shortly with a mix of laughter and disbelief. At the first turn of the first tratta run, two of the test pilots are ejected onto the track, reminding me of the real dangers here. One is carried off in a stretcher after an initial flurry of treatment under the Cappella di Piazza. His ultimate fate is unknown. The other recovers to ride later, the dark brown mark of track dirt providing evidence of his initial mistake. A collective gasp from the crowd starts to grow, as one white and one brown horse make it clear that they really do not want anything on their backs. In the Palio, jockeys ride bareback—no saddle, no stirrups. All they have is a rein for driving. But ditching jockeys is a rare occurrence during the tratta, when horses have not yet been selected.

Statistics don’t matter today, as two horses are running amok, and they are not stopping of their own accord. The scene becomes humorous, almost jovial, among those of us processing the unfolding events. Cameras are racing through their digital ammunition. The horses aren’t stopping, but one is following the other at breakneck speed around the track. Lap 5. Lap 6. Lap 7. (It reminds me of the comical film Airplane: “By the way, is there anyone on board who knows how to fly a plane?”) They are proving their stamina if nothing else. The other jockeys have since cleared their horses from the track. Every thirty seconds or so, the determined steeds blow past our spot. After a few such passes, small crews of courageous men jump into the track, waving towels and then escaping quickly.

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