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A Day At The (Camel) Races

Camel Races in Alice Springs, Australia
Kraig Becker
The Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes are three of the biggest horse races on the planet, collectively making up the prestigious Triple Crown. Steeped in tradition, each of those events deftly mixes exhilarating action on the track with plenty of pomp and circumstance in the stands. With their large purses, competitive fields and rich histories these races are the very embodiment of the "sport of kings," drawing plenty of attention to thoroughbred racing on an annual basis.

The residents of the town of Alice Springs, located deep in the heart of Australia's "Red Center," aren't particularly impressed with the Triple Crown, however, mostly because they have a fine race all their own. In the minds of local residents, their homegrown event more than rivals those races in terms of prestige, action and unpredictability, while easily surpassing it in quirkiness. The Lasseters Camel Cup takes place on the second Sunday in July each year and features some of the finest camel racing you could ever hope to see. That is, if you should ever find yourself at an actual event that features those irritable, obstinate and down right mean animals pitted against one another on a racetrack. The sport seems aptly fitting for Australia, however, where they not only have an abundance of camels but more than a few jockeys crazy enough to try to ride them.
Considering the fact that camels aren't indigenous to the continent, they have still managed to play a surprisingly important role in Australia's history. The animals were originally imported to the country from Pakistan, India and the Middle East back in the 1800s and were used in both the exploration of remote regions as well as in the building of the all-important Overland Telegraph Line. Eventually, camel breeders set up shop within Australia itself, providing local animals that were healthier and stronger than those that were being imported. They remained a popular choice for draft and riding animals into the 1920s when motorized vehicles came to prominence and began to replace the creatures. When they were no longer needed, many camels were set free into the rugged Outback and over the years they have grown into quite the nuisance. It is estimated that more than 1 million wild camels now wander the countryside and in an interesting change of fate, some are occasionally rounded-up and actually exported to other countries.

The Camel Cup has been built on the legacy that the animals have created in Australia but also has a colorful history all its own. Now in its 43rd year, the race began as a bet between two residents of Alice Springs who decided to settle a feud by racing one another on the backs of the unpredictable beasts. They didn't know it at the time, but those two men were starting a tradition that would continue for decades to follow, carving out its own identity in the process. The original race was so much fun for the locals that they actually decided to continue with the event in subsequent years. The Camel Cup became an important fund raiser for the Alice Springs Lions Club, which has been involved with the event from the start and uses the money raised to help fund a number of local programs.

Camel races in Alice Springs, Austin
Kraig Becker
The most recent edition of the Camel Cup took place last Saturday, July 13, in front of a large and enthusiastic crowd of over 5000 at the Noel Fullerton Camel Racing Arena located in Alice Spring's Blatherskite Park. That arena became the permanent home for the race in 1979 and is the only venue dedicated strictly to camel racing in the entire Southern Hemisphere. It features a 400-meter, oval shaped track, plenty of seating for fans and a press box where colorful commentators provided interesting and funny comments all day long. Local vendors also set up stands that offered any number of tasty delicacies to keep those in attendance happy and well fed.

Much like the Triple Crown, the Camel Cup consists of a number of races that take place throughout the day. Each of those races brings an element of uncertainty and randomness to the event leaving spectators to wonder just what they might see next. The stubborn nature of the camels often provides good comic relief because when they aren't busy trying to throw their riders they often race in the wrong direction or simply refuse to run at all. At the Camel Cup it is possible to see more unexpected action on the track in a single afternoon than you would see in months of horse racing. You'll also be more than happy to be sitting safely in the stands rather than astride one the more temperamental creatures making its way around the track.

Between races the crowd is treated to a number of other entertaining activities. Young children race on the track's infield on hobby-camels while rickshaw races involving teams pulling each other around the track are hilarious to watch. There's even a spirited competition amongst contestants looking to be named Mr. and Miss Camel Cup, which is a unique honor to say the least.

As a visitor to Alice Springs taking in the Camel Cup for the first time, I loved how there was an air of seriousness about the entire event, but not too serious. Some fans came dressed up in their finest clothes, as if they were going to the Kentucky Derby, while others wore silly costumes and became part of the show. The bottom line was that everyone was there to have a good time and no matter which end of the spectrum you were on, I think that mission was accomplished. I'm not positive, but I believe that even the camels were getting a good laugh out of the whole affair.

Filed under: Festivals and Events, Oceania, Australia

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