The camels rested on their haunches. In the pen behind them, half a dozen ostriches poked their heads up and down, up and down as they peeked over the fence. Dust hovered inches above the ground as participants gathered around, eager to hear the instructions on how the day was going to run: First a set of camels, then ostriches, then more camels, some chickens for the kids, zebras, a few more ostriches … and so on for several hours under the warm sun in Virginia City, Nevada.
It may seem like an unlikely place to hold camel races of all things, but Virginia City has played host to the event for 51 years. Camels were originally banned in Nevada because they scared horses. In 1959, Bob Richards, editor of The Territorial Enterprise, wrote a spoof article about the camel races, a completely made-up event that painted a goofy picture of these creatures running toward a finish line. He published the results of the fictional camel race, and though locals knew it was all in fun, it was picked up and run on a nationwide scale. The following year, the non-existent races became a reality when camels leased from the San Francisco Zoo were raced down C Street.
The International Camel Races is now an annual event. It is held every September in Virgina City, with additional races being held in Alice Springs, Australia. Every year, thousands of spectators crowd into the stands, eager to watch camels and ostriches zip around an arena track with riders on their backs. These animals aren’t used to being ridden, and the riders do not know the animals. Hilarity and injuries ensue.
The races fill the better part of a couple days. Camel and ostrich races are interspersed with emu races, off-color jokes and entertainment for the kids. Cowboy boots and jeans are the typical attire, and it’s worth noting that this is a fairly conservative crowd. I had to walk away just to escape some of the comments floating around the bleachers.
I love the fact that quirky places have quirky traditions, and the International Camel Races in Virginia City are no exception. They’re fun, cheeky and just a bit bizarre, but doesn’t it just make for a good story when you can say you saw a collarbone broken by an ostrich?