Up Close At One Of The World’s Oldest, Most Dangerous Horse Races

The Palio di Siena lasts less than two minutes and has been run regularly for more than 350 years. Just watch those hooves.

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Twice a summer, the 17 districts (or parishes, or contrade) of Siena, Italy, send forth their top riders in a bareback horse-riding competition called the Palio di Siena. Their prize? A silk banner depicting the Madonna and child — and all of the bragging rights.

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Not all 17 parishes get to participate in the main event. Trial races are held the day before to whittle the field down to the actual 10 competitors. Here, Giovanni Atzeni, better known as Tittia to the crowds, rides as the representative of Onda (Wave) parish.

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Tens of thousands of fans cram into the Piazza Del Campo on the day of the trials as well as the main event, but the horses still manage to find the quieter spaces. Here, Naike, the horse representing the Aquila (Eagle) parish, rests before a qualifier. (Notice the eagle-emblazoned flags lining the alley.)

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It’s a time when civic pride is at its peak. Here, a priest baptizes a baby into the Selva (Forest) parish the day before the race.

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There’s a parade that takes place before the main event on race day, and every participating parish takes part.

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Polonski, the horse riding for the Torre (Tower) parish, arrives for the parade on race day.

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An overhead view of the parade.

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Even the horses look a little nervous beforehand.

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The starting order, from the inside out (left to right), was Oca (Goose), Bruco (Caterpillar), Onda (Wave), Lupa (Wolf), Tartuca (Tortoise), Torre (Tower), Nicchio (Shell), Aquila (Eagle), Chiocciola (Snail), and Selva (Forest). Here, Jonathan Bartoletti of the Lupa parish, fourth from right, leads after the start.

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The race is just three laps around the town square, and it only takes about 90 seconds to complete, so every move could mean victory or defeat. During the second lap, Bartoletti (right) lost his lead on a collision.

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Spectators pack every corner of the piazza.

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It’s not uncommon for jockeys to get seriously injured as a result of mid-race dismount.

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The finish can often be close and contested, but not this year.

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In the end, Giovanni “Tittia” Atzeni, riding for the Onda (Wave) parish, won his fourth Palio race in rather easy fashion. The horse representing the Chiocciola (Snail) parish came in close behind — sans rider.

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Tittia, a crowd favorite for years, was immediately mobbed by swarms of supporters, who’d started jumping the course’s outer walls in exaltation even before the race was over.

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Atzeni also won the first Palio race of this summer — but for a different parish. Six weeks ago, the glory was all for Oca (Goose).

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Atzeni was carried off in victory wearing significantly less attire than he’d started the race with.

Stefano Rellandini / Reuters

Onda/Wave supporters claimed the Cencio, the prized Palio silk banner depicting the Madonna and child. They — and Atzeni — now have bragging rights for the next eleven months, until the first Palio of 2014 arrives, as always, on July 2.

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