Comstock camel jockey finds Aussies take races seriously
Appeal Staff Writer
Twenty years ago, two towns a world apart were joined together, all for the love of camel racing.
Nevada residents, of course, are well aware of the Virginia City International Camel Races, which take place next weekend, but most don’t realize they have only been “international” since 1987.
That’s when Virginia City camel race organizers learned about the races in Alice Springs, Australia, a city of about 30,000 in that country’s center, and began a long-distance relationship.
The two communities became sister cities, and have a few things in common: Both are desert communities, both are tourist destinations, and both are known for somewhat eccentric residents.
Other than that, the differences are more obvious: Alice Springs is much larger than Virginia City, it’s flat, and a river runs through it. A dry river, of course.
This being the races’ 20th year, someone from Virginia City needed to go to Alice to ride in the International Race, which pits Aussie camel jockeys against American.
And as true-blue, eccentric Comstock residents, my husband, Carl, and I decided to go, and I would ride the camel.
Little did I know that in Australia, they take their camel racing seriously. In Virginia City, we only take our history seriously.
So on July 7, off Carl and I went on to the Land Down Under, on a 14-hour flight from San Francisco to Sydney.
When we got to Alice Springs, we were greeted by our hostess, Nola Leybak, a retiree who was indefatigable in her efforts to take us anywhere we wanted to go for the four days we spent there.
Also on hand were two American camel jockeys, Whitney Shannon, of Oregon, and Noelle Young, of Sacramento.
On Friday, we headed out to the race arena to meet with Shorty Smith, a Tasmanian who rides the camel-racing circuit in Australia – yes, they have a circuit.
Shorty said Noelle, Whitney and I could ride his camels in the races.
Shorty’s camels are named Tazzie Devil, Cool Tazzie and Just Tazzie. We spent some time getting acquainted with the three Tazzies, all of whom seemed completely unimpressed with us.
Saturday, July 14 was Imparja Camel Cup race day, named after a local TV station that sponsored the event. When it comes racing, these folks were serious.
In addition to the Aussies, there were a number of Americans from a nearby U.S. Defense Department facility that joined in the fun and were very skilled camel jockeys.
The camels came from three or four outfitters around Alice Springs that take visitors out on camel trips. These camels could run, too, if they wanted to.
There were about 30 camels to race around a half-mile circular track. Ten camels raced at a time in Alice Springs, and there would be nine races that day, the final race being the International race. The races drew a crowd of more than 6,000.
I was set to ride Just Tazzie in the fourth race and, with Shorty’s help, mounted the camel, who was fairly mellow. Just how mellow, I was about to find out.
We headed out with nine other camels and riders to the starting line. All of the camels are brought to a kneeling position, then let up all at once when the race began. I had a plan; the same one I used during my one experience riding in a Virginia City race – kick the camel a little, hold on, and pray.
When the gun sounded and all the camels got up and started running, Just Tazzie was right in the middle of the pack until about halfway around the track. Then he decided he wanted to walk.
No amount of kicking could get that animal to run. He just walked along, looking out at the crowd, as if he were on a Sunday jaunt.
I got an ovation as Just Tazzie finally made it to the finish line – dead last. All afternoon, the crowd cheered for two racers: the one who came in first and the one who came in last.
Riding a camel is not like riding a horse; the camel’s gait makes it feel like you are on a large, uncomfortable and jerky rocking chair. Even that ride, which was a run only for half of it, left me bruised and sore.
So when the race was over, I did the true Virginia City thing – I had a drink over lunch. For medicinal purposes, of course, not realizing that the rules were taking even one drink meant you can’t ride again the rest of the day.
The way my legs and back felt, had I known that, I might have had that drink before my race.
So I didn’t ride in the International Race, but the U.S. was still well represented. Whitney came in first, bringing the international trophy back to America. She’ll be here to defend it next weekend in Virginia City.
• Contact reporter Karen Woodmansee at kwoodmansee @nevadaappeal.com or 882-2111, ext. 351.