Horse racing is popular around the world and for many countries it’s so much more than just a sport or a pastime – it’s deeply entrenched in their culture and traditions. This is especially true for Siena in Italy, a city with an interesting history that led to its division into 17 independent districts. Even today, the rivalry between these districts is strong, especially during the legendary Palio di Siena horse race. All the drama and intrigue, both on the surface and well beneath it, have been captured in the 2015 British documentary film, Palio, directed by Italian-born Cosima Spender.
If you’re a horse racing and online sports betting enthusiast, you’re absolutely certain to be pulled into the documentary’s story of intrigue and corruption and the sheer mania surrounding this long-standing biannual event. Read on for a look at what’s in store.
What is the Palio di Siena?
The Palio di Siena is the oldest continually run horse race in the world and it typically takes place twice a year on July 2 (in honor of the Madonna of Provenzano) and August 16 (in honor of the Assumption of Mary.) The very first Palio di Siena is believed to have been held in 1482 as part of a civic celebration, but it only became a biannual event in 1701. Usually, only 10 of the 17 districts participate and all jockeys are free agents. The daring horse riders race bareback in the color of their associated district.
Sounds straightforward enough, but Italian locals know that the Palio di Siena is anything but. It’s an infinitely dangerous race where anything goes – jockeys are allowed to use their whips on their horses and each other and have even been known to physically pull their opponents from their steeds. Fuelled by the rivalry between districts, the horse race reminds of the gladiator era and is a spectacle from start to finish. It’s quite evident why the race earned the nickname “Rocky on Horseback.” Before, during and after the race it’s common for corruption to occur and for physical violence to break out between participants and spectators if foul play is suspected.
Other distinctive features of this particular horse race include the fact that thoroughbreds are banned, with jockeys only racing mixed breed horses – each one picked specifically for its “mediocrity.” Any horse thought to be “too fast” or “too slow” is passed over for another one considered “perfectly average.” Furthermore, the “loser” of the Palio di Siena isn’t the last horse to cross the finish line. Rather, the horse that comes in second place is deemed the “loser” by unforgiving spectators.
Why horse racing fans will love Palio
If reading the description of the Palio di Siena got you excited, you’ll have the time of your life watching Palio, which gives a behind-the-scenes look at this age-old event, the existing rivalries and some of its current participating horses, trainers and jockeys. It’s a transparent look at the underhanded dealings that often take place and the Italians’ sheer passion for the sport – something many horse racing betting enthusiasts can relate to.
Palio whisks you into an intriguing story revolving around the complicated relationship between ambitious 29-year-old Giovanni Atzeni and his former mentor, Gigi Bruschelli, the winner of 13 Palios in 16 years. Gigi is determined to break the record held by retired jockey Andrea Degortes while Giovanni is determined to beat out his mentor. The film includes interviews with these jockeys as well as footage of their preparations for the race and, of course, the Palio di Siena itself.
Behind the scenes
Cosima Spender, the film’s director, was born in Italy, just outside of Siena, giving him first-hand knowledge of just how brutal the city’s favorite horse race can be. This comes through in all aspects of the film.
Palio was written by both Cosima Spender and John Hunt, who also produced the film alongside James Gay-Rees. Alex Heffes is behind the score, Stuart Bently perfected the cinematography and Valerio Bonelli is the editing genius who snagged the award for “Best Editing for a Documentary” at the Tribeca Film Festival, where the film made its debut.
Other films for horse racing betting fans
Taking a short break from current horse racing picks? There are plenty of other horse racing films to add to your watch list to keep you busy! A few of our favorites include:
- Seabiscuit: The true story of the underdog that ran his way to champion status and into the hearts of all Americans.
- Secretariat: Another true story that looks at the horse that is arguably the greatest racehorse of all time.
- Let it Ride: A feel-good film about horse racing betting, featuring David Johansen and Jennifer Tilly.
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