Twice a year in Siena, Italy, an explosion is set off in the center of town. The sound of the blast can be heard for miles around. The purpose of the bomb? To alert the Sienans that the Palio di Siena is about to begin.
Thousands of Italians and lovers of sport from around Europe make the trek to the Piazza del Campo, the center of town, where the streets and sidewalks have been covered in thick dirt and grass just for this occasion. The corners of buildings and poles and walls are covered in padded materials. The dirt is to protect the horses. The padding is to protect the jockeys. The Palio di Siena, or Il Palio, is a treacherous bareback horse race through the middle of town. A race where a horse can win even if it loses its rider (and they often do). A race where jockeys not only use their whips on their own mounts, but often on the other jockeys in the middle of the race. A race that dates back to 1656, but in one form or another goes back as far as the 14th century.
The Palio di Siena is an incredibly popular event in Italy, attracting thousands of people and celebrated with a massive festival and feast. Now lawmakers in New Jersey are working to bring Il Palio to the United States. They are currently considering legislation that would allow the Atlantic City Alliance (ACA), a casino industry trade group, to hold a two-day Il Palio on the beach alongside the Atlantic City boardwalk.
The ACA believes the event could attract up to 50,000 new visitors, some from as far away as Europe, and could be a boon to the casino industry and racetrack industry alike. The legislation would also allow for New Jersey racetracks to take wagers on the two-day race. And the visitors would stay in Atlantic City hotels. It could be a win-win for two industries that historically have been at odds – casinos and racetracks.
The plan for the American Il Palio would call for 50 horses to enter, one for each state, and the field would compete until there were nine finalists, just like in the Italian version. In Siena, the horses each represent a different Contrade, or district within the region. The rivalries between the districts are fierce. Fans are just as proud of their horse and rider for knocking rivals out of the race (from hitting them, pulling them off their horse, or any other means – there are no rules against this kind of behavior) as they are when their Contrade wins the race.
Even though the American Il Palio would be run on the Jersey shore, which is no stranger to rowdy behavior and fighting, it is unlikely the race will be run without restrictions on this kind of behavior. But if college sports has shown us anything, it’s that interstate rivalries cut deep and inspire emotion in America.
Perhaps there’s hope for the Il Palio catching on.