The Virginia and Truckee Railroad carries tourists through Nevada's old mining country these days, where it hauled a mother lode of gold and silver ore back in the 1800s. Virginia City became a wild west mining boomtown.
That colorful past is celebrated each year by the return of gunslingers, "ladies of the evening," and of course that four-legged hoofed animal of the Old West … the camel.
Yes, camels, imported back then as pack animals for mining here in the high desert. They eventually disappeared, but made a spectacular comeback a half-century ago
In 1959, a local newspaper published a fictional account of Virginia City's camel races. Although a complete hoax, it didn't sound like a bad idea.
And so the next year the town actually held a real camel race. Oddly, the winning jockey was legendary film director John Huston, who was in these hills filming "The Misfits."
Fifty years later, they're still at it.
Now you may be wondering, Where do you find racing camels?
Kansas, of course! Specifically, at the exotic animal farm of Joe Hedrick, known to some as the "Camel Whisperer."
"I can read their body language, their tail twitch and the movement of their eyes," Hedrick said.
For camels, racing is not a full-time job. Hedrick explained typical work days for camels:
"They go on stages, they go in theaters, they do churches, anything that can be done with a camel we do it with them. We've had them in movies and commercials."
(Left: Ready for his closeup.)
So these are camel superstars? "Yes," Hedrick said. "One minute they're racing, and the next in a Biblical scene."
So Joe brings the racing camels. But where do they find camel jockeys? Actually, from all over. Those who help make up the International Order of Camel Jockeys can be found in New York City, Texas, Spokane, Wash., even Australia (not to mention Facebook).
"These are the only international camel and ostrich races in this country," said Shorty Smith, a camel jockey from Tasmania.
A camel racing veteran (with the limp to prove it), Smith said, "Just because you're a good rider doesn't mean you're exempt from coming unstuck or coming off a camel. At one race track I come off, landed head-first, got stomped on. Ten days in hospital, three-and-a-half months of physio, and I'm not right even today."
Hedrick makes sure everyone has signed releases. "It's a dangerous sport. No wusses. No weak at heart.
"Don't be embarrassed not to ride," he added helpfully.
Thousands of camel racing fans packed the stands. After all, there are limited opportunities to see this sport.
There is almost an Olympic flavor as teams from faraway Australia and Wales march into the stadium.
Camel races sometimes look a lot like horse races.
In camel racing there are no saddles, no stirrups, and the jockeys aren't always the ones in control. That's when they can get their camels to move.
There are exciting photo finishes . . . and some surprises.
After a full weekend of racing the time had come to determine the new world champion in the International Camel Cup, run in alternate years here and in Alice Springs, Australia.
"So we have two Australians and two Americans for the international cup here," said Hedrick.
It's the race everyone comes to see:
Australian Ian Rowan is off to a fast start, holds the lead … and … wins the race!
"We've come 8,000 miles, been planning for three years, and it was worth every penny!" he said.
No one even knows the winning camel's name!
But camels don't mind: They're moving on to their next gig, on stage co-starring with some pretty big names (like Mary and Joseph).
For more info:
Hedricks's Exotic Animal Farm/Hedrick's Promotions