Kansas camels return to Comstock this weekend

Cathleen Allison/Nevada AppealWhitney Shannon and Matt Rogers race in the Virginia City International Camel Races on Friday afternoon. The camel races continue today and Sunday.

Cathleen Allison/Nevada AppealWhitney Shannon and Matt Rogers race in the Virginia City International Camel Races on Friday afternoon. The camel races continue today and Sunday.

For Joe Hedrick, raising camels is a serious business. And he lets you know as much.

Before the Media Grudge Match on Friday, he gathered the jockeys to provide instruction and ask a series of questions.

Probably the most disconcerting was: "Are there any of you who don't have health insurance?"

Hedrick was raised on a ranch and toured as a rodeo clown. Wanting a business during the off season, he bought wild camels from Australia that had never been ridden. That first bunch was tough, he said, "but every camel after that got easier and easier."

He now has a herd of 70 head, and raises other exotic animals as well including ostriches and zebras at his Exotic Animal Farm Bed and Breakfast in Nickerson, Kan.

He has confidence in his camels, but knows the limits of that confidence.

"I wouldn't tell you that these camels wouldn't kick you, but they don't," he explained. "I won't tell you they won't strike you, but they don't. This is a new arena in a new environment so you never know."

For the past six years, I've been entering the media camel races " taking last year off because of a conflict with graduate school " and I wasn't quite sure what to make of Hedrick's explanation.

Hedrick provided camels for the races in the 90s, but a local provider has been used for about the past 10 years. So I was not familiar with Hedrick or his animals.

And he wasn't familiar with me.

As usual, my colleagues in the media were a disappointment. I extended nearly a dozen invitations to compete against me, but one by one each person declined.

Their excuses were the same lame excuses I've heard every year, from not having a car to being too busy to having to attend a funeral. Give me a break.

Only Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Association, had a legitimate reason for his absence.

"I have to herd cattle," he told me. "You know, all those cows at the press association ranch ..."

But this year, there wasn't a single member of the media at the races. Only me, competing against jockeys practicing for the events this weekend.

And that made Hedrick a little wary. He assured me that at any time I wanted to back out, I could, even if I was already in the chute.

But knowing I had a reputation to uphold, I climbed up the wall of my chute and onto the back of my camel, Al, for my first race.

I'd told Hedrick that I needed to win in order to write an appropriate story. I admitted that even if I didn't win, I'd find a way to twist it to make it seem as if I had. So he set me up with the fastest camel. But I lost.

He let me ride again, this time on Ghost, the camel who'd won the first heat. But I lost again.

I hung my head in defeat, but there were other victories.

Matt Rogers, 24, of Burlingame, Calif., competed in his first races Friday. Although he finished second, he was initiated into the elite club of camel jockeys when they rolled him in camel manure.

His uncle Bob Elliott, 68, of Antioch, Calif., has been competing for about 15 years. But he sat out this year. Two years ago, he broke his collar bone after a fall.

"It's still worth it," Elliott said. "It's the greatest experience in the world."

I couldn't agree more. And since there were no other members of the media, technically I think I still win by default.

- Contact reporter Teri Vance at tvance@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1272.

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