After the horses are assigned to the contrade, test races (prova) are held twice on each day before the final race, in the morning and in the early evening. The prova help the jockeys (fantini) and horses become familiar with each other and with the course, so the prova are not as intense as the final race. But by watching the prova every day, you’ll be more familiar with the sequence of events that happens during the final Palio race.
The horses for the Lupa (She-Wolf) and Aquila (Eagle) contrade arrive at the track for a prova, followed by their supporters. The horses are led into the Cortile del Podestá where they will be joined by their jockeys.
Horses and jockeys of the Leocorno (Unicorn), Pantera (Panther), and Aquila (Eagle) contrade emerge from the Cortile del Podestá onto the track at Il Campo before a prova. Jockeys are not typically members of their contrada; they are hired to win a race and will probably ride for a different contrada next time. In the Palio, the jockeys ride without saddles.
Horses and jockeys proceed to the Mossa (starting area) to the cheers of the crowd. In the stands, schoolchildren support their contrada by waving their bandieras enthusiastically.
Horses and jockeys slowly circle behind the Mossa while waiting for an official to call them to their numbered starting positions.
Horse and jockey for the Leocorno (Unicorn) contrada, circling while waiting to be called to the starting line. The inscription on the back of the jacket is Latin for A Kingdom by the Grace of (King) Umberto.
Horses and jockeys for Torre (Tower) and Bruco (Caterpillar) contrade evaluate the situation before the start of a race. During the often lengthy wait for the start, some jockeys try to create an advantage by unnerving their opponents in various ways. Some horses may become anxious, so their jockeys may need to keep them calm until the start. The Bruco jockey for this Palio is the great Luigi Bruschelli (nicknamed “Trecciolino”), winner of many Palios since the mid-1990s.
Horse and jockey for Pantera (Panther) contrada walk off the tension together while circling slowly behind the starting line.
Jockeys at the Mossa watch for the last horse to reach its starting position, which will allow the race to begin.
The track crew tightens the Verrocchio; dropping the rope starts the race.
During a prova, jockeys for the Torre (Tower) and Chiocciola (Snail) contrade test their horses and the track at speed.
Because horses and jockeys first meet only a few days before the final Palio race, each jockey tries to improve his understanding of his horse with each prova, so that they can bond and become a team competitive enough to win the Palio.
Horses speed around the sharp San Martino corner during a prova. The last horse, which appears to be Lupa, has lost its rider. In the Palio a horse can win without its jockey if it’s still wearing its contrada’s headpiece (spennacchiera). But a jockey can’t win without his horse.
In the final race, each jockey wields a nerbo, the traditional whip, which is sometimes used not on the horse but against the other jockeys. They don’t carry the nerbo in the prova. If you see that a jockey carries a nerbo, you can assume the photo was taken during the final race.
Most of the track photos I took were during the test races, because the smaller crowds make it easy to get all the way up to the rail. Because each race is less than 2 minutes long, being able to see multiple prova gave me more time to practice shooting the fast-moving horses and understand different viewpoints along the track. As the week progressed, I became increasingly comfortable with shot selection, timing, and panning techniques. I also evaluated the feasibility of acquiring acceptable video and audio, and realized that the infield is not ideal for that. Even if you’re along the rail, it’s hard to follow action while keeping others’ arms and heads out of your shot. If it’s critical that you bring back the best possible content, get out of the standing infield crowds and pay for a bleacher seat, or find out how to be on the track with the other photojournalists, like the ones you see at the top left edge of the track in the last photo. Better yet, don’t try to do it all alone like I did. Bring a team instead.