Why horse racing in Italy isn't stupid

Once I heard we were attending a horse race, I became more excited for the Italy trip than any other. Then I was told there is no betting on the horse race. What kind of stupid race is this? What's the point?

Are they racing for a trophy or something? No. They were racing for a banner. They were racing for pride. They were racing so that their grape crop would be plentiful. They're a superstitious bunch. II Palio is the name of the event and as they kept telling me, "It is not just a horse race. It is life." I've never seen so many people so passionate about a horse race. Or life.

The intensity surrounding the Palio makes the Kentucky Derby feel like the third race at Pimlico on a Tuesday. Siena is composed of 17 contrade or districts. Ten get to race each time the Palio is held (once in July, once in August). By the look on their faces, and the words they use to describe their loyalty to their district, you'd think this race was a matter of life and death. And it nearly is.

To be beaten by one's rival, they believe, pretty much ruins the year to come. Grateful are those who are able to turn failure into success by winning or beating their rival in the August race if July's outcome was miserable. To understand the passion for belonging to a district, you first have to see how their neighborhood operates.

In most of our neighborhoods, it's possible to live for years without knowing the name of the family living four doors down. In the Unicorn Contrada, everyone knew everyone. Dinners were held outdoors on picnic tables each night. Tips were rejected because the waiters and waitresses were just doing their duty. Same as the cooks who cranked out a new version of pasta each night. The guy who runs a winery brought the wine. Everyone pitched in. Everyone cleaned up. Everyone came back and did it again each night of Palio week. But even outside of Palio week, the bond is tight.

As one man told us, "I have several fathers and several mothers and more brothers and sisters than just in my family." This sounded like one burdensome Christmas present and birthday list to keep track of, but it works for the people of Siena.

Our friends from the Unicorn district drew an inferior horse (they don't bring their own horse to the race -- a drawing determines who gets Secretariat and who gets a nag) for the August 2012 Palio. The horse was called Nobile Nilo. His nickname after the trial races was Immobile Nilo. But anything can happen in a horse race. Anything and everything can happen in this race. Did I mention it's not held at a horse track?

The Palio takes place over the walkways of the town's plaza. Of course it does. One bad step and a horse is in the kitchen of an Italian restaurant or into the wall of the tower that rises high above the plaza. As horse races go one's heart so deeply into Nobile Nilo. I'm not superstitious at all, but I really wanted the people of the Unicorn district to have an abundant wine crop. With no money wagered, I was all in with the Unicorns.