Days at the Races

Been traveling in Italy for the past couple of weeks ... went to the Palio in Siena, an amazing event in which the various neighborhoods of the city vie to win a horse race. The honor is temporary because they run the race again next year and have been doing so every year for the last 500 or so. So, like Super Bowl champions or World Series winners, it's back to the drawing boards as soon as the celebrations are over.

When you are traveling in a foreign country and have no language skills you are in a kind of enforced isolation from the events of the wider world as well as the actual day-to-day lives of the people around you. There is very little information available. If you are an optimistic person, you enter a kind of serene state of mind where all is new and beautiful in the world as far as the eye can see. You are well-fed on great food and great wine and sleep very soundly at night, at peace with the world. (Not until you get back to your normal life do you learn that you've gained 5 pounds and your cholesterol is racing higher.)



Of course, if you actually were able to understand the local news broadcasts, you might find that there is a serial murderer on the loose in the region or SARS has broken out in your village.

This blissful state of unawareness always gets me back to focusing on the big picture. I read intensively the few scraps of English-language information available in a vain effort to keep in touch. For this purpose, the International Herald Tribune comes in mighty handy. I had forgotten how much one can get out of a good newspaper. I had to have my daily fix, driving or walking miles with the sole purpose of getting to the one store in the region that carried it. When the IHT was sold out I reluctantly settled for USA Today (too many reminders about small-picture nonsense back home) or the Wall Street Journal Europe (too much about obscure European business deals).

In the IHT, the world seemed, for this brief time, orderly and comprehensible. With no blaring newspeak from blow-dried local anchors screaming about cracks in local bridges and corruption in state capitols, I kept focused on what really mattered: daily bread from the market, cappuccinos in the square and issues of U.S. national honor (or dishonor) and our place among the nations of the world. Of course, there was nothing I could do about any of the problems I compulsively read about; but I could think deeply, form my opinions and debate good-humoredly with my traveling companions.

What was sorely missing from our lives was reliable information about the local horse race. We bought the Siena newspapers, got our Italian-English dictionaries out and tried to decipher which neighborhood had the best horse or best jockey or both.

The race is run around the Campo, the central public square of the city. In the large stone courtyard they put down truckloads of special tight-packing sand to lessen the chance of injury to horses and riders. Leading up to race day, each neighborhood goes into a frenzy of activity -- celebrations and dinners in the streets and the blessing of the horses. Neighborhood political leaders meet in smoke-filled rooms to plot strategy. Alliances with friendly neighborhoods are made. The object is not only to attempt to win but to make certain other neighborhoods that are hated end up losing.

In the days before the big event we went to all six of the trial races, watching the jockeys get to know their horses and vice-versa, while both tested the track. We studied closely, trying to divine which horse would win. In the end, the one we all liked actually did win. A couple of horses ahead of him threw their riders (was it some payoff for a deal between neighborhoods?), and he snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. It was thrilling and reminded me again of the advertising and media business.

Sometimes it's better to be in the right place at the right time than to be the best horse on the field. After three long years of famine, it feels like the media business is on the rise again. Maybe we've been a bit lucky to survive where others have fallen and maybe we can now celebrate the fruits of victory a bit. But watch out, others want what you have and the competition can be ruthless. And, there is no end to this race. It is run over and over and over, year after year after year, with potential new victors all the time.

True victory for the Siena neighborhoods and for our businesses is establishing a tradition of consistently great performance over many years, while shaking off losses and continually refining systems. And, you have to keep alert to the technology changes. After all, where is the International Herald Tribune today? To me it's really a relic of a bygone era when people had time to read and contemplate, undistracted by the messiness, diversions and urgent needs of day-to-day life.

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