The first camel races in Virginia City were started naturally enough by sportsmen and miners in 1866, who used the dromedaries to transport salt to the Comstock mills.
Whether it was an annual event or a one-time competition is not documented, but they did not extend past 1875, when the Legislature outlawed camels because they scared horses. The races as we know them today were reborn in 1959 as a grand hoax, when Territorial Enterprise Editor Bob Richards wrote a spoof of the races.
He published the results of a fictional camel race and, while locals took it tongue-in-cheek, the wire services picked it up, and the story went nationwide.
The following year, Richards was challenged by the San Francisco Chronicle, which had taken his article seriously. As legend has it, camels were leased from the San Francisco Zoo, then raced down C Street. The event gained immediate fame because Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, who were nearby filming “The Misfits,” joined director John Huston for a day at the races.
Since then, it has become an annual event, with the international championships being held every other year, alternating with Alice Springs, Australia.
And it’s no longer a joking matter.
Just ask Joe Hedrick, owner of Hedrick’s Exotic Animal Farm in Kansas, who provides the camels ostriches, emus and zebras for the races. Each year, the races kick off with a Media Grudge Match — in homage to the original race — on the Friday before the main event. This will be my 11th year competing in that.
Hedrick takes the potential jockeys behind the arena for a pep talk, except it isn’t a pep talk at all. He does his best to talk us all out of it, telling us we can back out at anytime, that is until the chute gate opens, then you better just hang on.
He warns riders of the hazards of climbing about seven feet atop the beasts of burden that weigh anywhere between 900 to 1,700 pounds.
“I have some of the best camels in the country, but they’re still animals,” he told us one year. “The camels will have more control than you will, and they have an attitude of their own. We don’t need any wusses here.”
That may explain why few of my colleagues actually show up on race day. I used to try to recruit competition, like in 2004 when I called them all out.
Sheila Gardner, who was then chief of the Carson/Douglas Bureau of the Reno paper and who retired earlier this year from The Record-Courier, said she’d gone this far in her life never riding a camel and never intended to.
I sent an email to Guy Clifton at the same Reno newspaper. He responded, “I hate to burst your bubble, my friend, but I am a writer — not a rider — a writer. You will have to think of another way to have me killed.”
A few years later, Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Association, came up with the ultimate excuse.
“I have to herd cattle,” he told me. “You know, all those cows at the press association ranch ...”
But for all the warnings Hedrick hands out, he’s also given some pretty sound advice when it comes to winning.
“Be the first across the finish line,” he recommended.
On Friday, that’s exactly what I intend to do.
And that’s no joke.
Teri Vance can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.