Racing in the Desert atop Curious Steeds
By Jared Shein
You can feel the energy of the crowd.
Adults and children alike; ignoring the mountainous Nevada desert scenery, sitting, waiting in suspense. Down on the track, the jockeys scurry around
on the sandy ground, making their final preparations for what is to come.
The loudspeakers start blaring; the announcers start babbling in their western drawl, the countdown begins.
The jockeys steady their beasts
the crowd goes quiet
The gun goes off, and out of the gates come…the camels?
The 60th Annual Virginia City Camel and Ostrich Races
Camel and ostrich racing is an annual tradition in Virginia City, Nevada. The race was first held in 1959 when Bob Richards, editor of the Territorial Enterprise newspaper, wrote a spoof story about racing camels down the main drag in Virginia City.
The story caught the eye of the San Francisco Chronicle, who offered to bring a camel up to Virginia City for the ‘race.’ The small local community embraced the opportunity and raced the camels down C Street. The event has been held ever since.
This year, the event drew over 10,000 people and consisted of four shows held over three days in early September.
Virginia City tourism director Deny Dotson described the event, “It’s a very fast-paced, family-friendly event. The fan participation is huge.
The whole crowd’s rocking and cheering for their favorite camel, they can win prizes in town if their camel wins.”
The races amount to something like a county fair, with sponsors, live music and food vendors galore. The event kicked off Friday afternoon with public camel rides for $10 and some animal racing later in the day.
Gates opened back up Saturday morning for more camel rides, a goofy rodeo clown, and more races featuring camels, ostriches, zebras, chickens, and emus.
The Camel Hump: Right into the Stores!
Reminiscent of the 1959 races, the camels began a parade down C Street on Saturday in the early afternoon. Led by trainers, they walked through town on the boardwalk and were even allowed into some local shops.
The camel hump is Dotson’s favorite part of the event, “We walk into the 1800’s style saloons with a camel, and people turn around and go ‘what the heck is that’,” he says. “The look on their faces is a riot. It’s not every day that you get to see a camel walk into a bar.”
Animal participants vary from year to year, but this past year the races featured camels, ostriches, zebras, emus, and chickens.
The animals come from Hedrick’s exotic farm and B&B located in Nickerson, Kansas and are owned by Hendrick’s Promotions who send their animals to events all over the U.S. (including Hawaii).
Dotson assured me that the animals are treated very well at the farm and are in the care of a group of talented trainers.
Most of the riders are very experienced with these types of animals, although some sponsors are also allowed to jockey, but only once they’ve done some training and signed a waiver.
While the Camel and Zebra races are planned by the Virginia City tourism bureau and executed by local marketing and promotions companies, the Virginia City residents are the ones who really make the event tick.
“My favorite part about the races is that they’re a community event,” Dotson says. “It has so many moving parts. We use buses from the school district for shuttles, the booster club and local high school sports teams help out with parking, and the moms and dads are all working in the concessions. The positive effect that the races have on local business is great to see as well.”
A significant part of the charm of the event is the host town. Virginia City is a unique and quaint city, with beautiful desert scenery, an old-time-y downtown and tons of history.
Virginia City is home to big mines that produced lots of gold and silver back in the 19th century. “At its peak, Virginia City was a thriving, vibrant metropolis of 25,000 residents,”
Many things about the city are different these days, but many things have also stayed the same. The City is much smaller now as the industrial opportunity is not what it once was, but much of the city’s 1800’s charm still remains.
The downtown is lined with rustic mom and pop shops, and the City’s national historic district status, means the new houses need to look like the old ones from the 1800s.
The city’s slogan is, “Step back in time,” and Dotson assured me that the city lives up to the slogan. “We don’t have neon lights or franchises,” says Dotson, “You’re not gonna find A Macdonalds or a Burger King Here. It is real, and it’s authentic.”
The Camel and Zebra races are but one of the many unique events that Virginia City hosts. Dotson mentioned how Virginia City does its best to emphasize its unique and traditional events. “Virginia City is known for doing things that are not the norm,” says Dotson.
“A lot of events we have here are for fun, but also to celebrate our history and some of our traditions here in northern Nevada.”
Other local events include a Rocky Mountain Oyster and St. Patricks day Festival (rocky mountain oysters are a dish made from bull testicles), chili cook-offs, the Virginia City Grand Prix (one of the largest motorcycle events in the country), civil war reenactments, a huge fourth of July festival, and their largest event, street vibrations (a motorcycle rally featuring 20,000 motorcycles crowding into the small town).
Virginia City is also under an hour’s drive from Reno, the Carson Valley, and Lake Tahoe, “The outdoor adventure in the area is endless,” says Dotson.
Visit the Virginia City tourism bureau website here.
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