A horse race in Tuscany has the oldest rivalries in sports — so which is best?

To get away from coverage of the upcoming referendum in Italy (aka, maybe the trigger for the next financial crisis), last week I watched Palio, an amazing documentary about a horse race in Siena, Italy. The movie, now on Netflix, deserves to be seen. It captures something I didn’t know existed, a medieval sport played in the modern day by big personalities infused with mafiaesque corruption.

Il Palio di Siena is held in the city’s central piazza, a tight and irregular loop of 340 meters. It has been held twice a year (sometime more on special occasions) since the early 1600s. The jockeys ride bareback. They hit each other in the face with their whips. They regularly are tossed from their mounts into the walls. It is perhaps the most intense 90 seconds in sports. Take a couple minutes and watch it.

The race is contested by the 17 contrade (districts) of Siena, with 10 of the districts competing in each race. The people of these contrade, and all that they bring to the Palio, are perhaps the best part of the entire event. A horse race in a picturesque Italian city would be an interesting spectacle. But the passion of the contrade — note the men jumping in the path of horses at the finish line to mob the winner — elevates it beyond a ritual and into a true sporting event, with the same emotions seen at Wrigley Field or Old Trafford.

If it’s a sports event, then it probably qualifies as the oldest continuous sporting event in history, at least one contested by what might be considered clubs. (Google says that the Kiplingcotes Derby in Yorkshire claims to be the oldest horse race in the world, beginning in 1519, but it’s an open entry race for individuals.)

This raised a question. If this is the oldest club competition in the world and if it is so fiercely contested — with contrade assigning bodyguards to jockeys so they are not bribed by their “enemy” contrada — then it might contains the best rivalry in all of sports.

But which rivalry is it?

Contrade of Siena. Central white area is the piazza that hosts the Palio.

Finding the stats

We’re fortunate that the Palio has a group of dedicated historians who have compiled a wealth of information going back nearly four centuries. We have information on the winner of every race since 1692 and the winners of some races from 1633–1690. It’s not easy to find sports scores from a few decades ago for some sports. To have the equivalent of scores from a few years after Shakespeare’s death is a real treasure.

Results and much, much, much more information on the race is available at ilpalio.org. I highly recommend, if you read Italian, the section on the winning contrada’s poems from the 1800s. They include encomiums for winning jockeys similar to the songs written for Olympic champions in Ancient Greece.

Using this data, we can compile a list of cumulative victories for each contrada.

With a clear lead, Oca (Goose) is the winningest contrada in Palio history. They took the lead in 1824 and haven’t looked back since. And while Chiocchiola (Snail) made it close in the mid-1800s, wins in 1890, 1891, and 1892 gave Oca a comfortable cushion they have expanded upon in the 20th and 21st centuries.

What counts as a good rivalry?

IlPalio.org lists seven major rivalries existing today. While I don’t have data about which contrada finished in front of the other for each race throughout history, I do know which contrada have led their rival in cumulative victories for each running of the Palio.

This doesn’t determine, though, which rivalry is the best. Really, how can a person judge something so subjective as the quality of a rivalry?

With the Palio, this is more than just the kind of arguments heard on sports radio today debating whether Red Sox-Yankees or Giants-Dogers is a better rivalry.

If two contrade have been enemies since 1850 — since before the sports of soccer, baseball, football and basketball were even codified and played professionally — does that automatically become the best rivalry, even that only represents half the history of the event? Should we give the torch to one that goes back to the 1600s, even if the two contrade are not close in terms of victories? And if passion matters most, how do we compare the feelings of people who lived on opposite sides of the Enlightenment?

Any determination of the quality of a rivalry will be arbitrary. We could ask people in Siena, but even the oldest person would only have a memory of around a quarter of the races held. So I will use three criteria to the rivalries, which I’ll score on a scale of 1–3. They are not perfect, but they at least give some direction to an investigation that is part sports, part history.

These will be 1) Anecdotal evidence of ferocity and length of the rivalry, drawn from the descriptions on IlPalio.org. 2) Proximity between the two contrade, as this would lead to constant interactions and conflicts between neighbors.

3) Closeness between the contrade in terms of total victories, since a blowout rivalry is probably not as keenly felt.

The data gave us these rivalry net win charts, and some initial research narrowed the field to three contenders.

Palio net wins by contrada rivalry dyads, cumulative since 1633

Oca vs Torre

Oca and Torre is considered one of the most contentious rivalries, but in terms of victories, it isn’t close. Torre held a lead of 1 Palio victory from 1641–1644. Since then Oca has accumulated a 23 Palio lead, with only the late 1700s and early 1800s as a period in which Torre was consistently outperforming Oca.

While I hesitate to say that the most lopsided rivalry is also the fiercest, they do combine for the most total wins of any rivalry duo, winning 104 of the 657 Palii on record, and have the honor of having their enmity prompted (in part) by fighting over a 19th century jockey who rode his last Palio at the age of 50 .

This gives them, in my accounting, a score of Anecdotal evidence — 3, Proximity — 2 (they are close but don’t border each other), and Evenness — 1, for a total of 6.

Onda vs Torre

Torre has the distinction of being the only contrada with two rivals. Its animosity towards Onda began in the 1600s, with fights over the border between the districts, as well as a death in the July 1688 race after the Torre jockey grabbed the Onda jockey and a Torre supporter jumped out onto the track and grabbed the Onda horse’s reins.

This also has the distinction of being the closest rivalry by one measure. The median net difference of victory is 0.00. Since 1633, Onda led Torre for the same amount of races as Torre led Onda, with only a few races seeing them at a level position.

Onda jumped out to a large lead by 1750, before Torre clawed it back and took the lead by 1825. Onda fought back and regained the lead it lost 160 years before in August 1985. It is hard to imagine a closer rivalry than one averages out to be basically level after 380 years.

This leads me to think that this rivalry gets Anecdotal — 2 (writing implies that Onda is less important to Torre than Oca, but it goes back further), Proximity — 3, and Evenness — 3, for a total of 8.

Istrice vs Lupa

This rivalry shows that I ought not to have doubted whether there could be a closer rivalry. While Istrice and Lupa only turned from allies to enemies in 1928, their historical record is nearly as close as Onda and Torre. Moreover, the net victory chart shows numerous spikes, times when one contrada won, only to be quickly followed by the other, ruining any time in which partisans of one could lord it over the other. Further, this was a closer rivalry than Onda and Torre in the range of wins, neither side ever had more than a 4-win lead over the other, as opposed to an 8-win lead for Torre at one point.

I therefore give this a score of Anecdotal — 1, Proximity — 3, and Evenness — 3, for a total score of 7.

Conclusion

Rivalries are one of the best part of sports. They give another layer to the game and infuse it with even more emotion.

Trying to determine the “best” rivalry from a keyboard 3,000 miles away from the event, never having seen it live, is in many ways a silly task. But what is sports if not determining who is the best, and using stats to come to conclusions that may be mistaken and/or silly?

So with a large caveat in place, I conclude that Onda vs Torre is the best oldest rivalry in sports. Now back to worrying about the collapse of the Italian banking system.


Originally published at www.chrisoates.info.