October 11, 2009

International Camel Races celebrates 50 years in Virginia City

They snort. They spit. Sometimes they bite. They may be the most ornery animals on four legs – at least any animal you would consider riding. And they’re coming to Northern Nevada’s Virginia City to race.

The Virginia City International Camel Races celebrate its 50th running Sept. 11-13, 2010 in this Wild West town, offering high drama in the high desert hills outside of Reno. While the dromedaries are not known for their speed – some even choose to go the wrong way on occasion – the awkward gallops, jockeys hanging on for dear life, and the whooping of the crowd is a spectacle worth seeing.

A piece of Nevada history

The camel races started as a lie, when Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise newspaper in 1959 made up a story about camel racing on the Comstock. The story found its way into other newspapers, and eventually the San Francisco Chronicle and the Phoenix Sun challenged each other to a race.

So the races were on, the year that the “Misfits” starring Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, and directed by John Huston, were in Virginia City filming the movie. Huston, riding for the Chronicle, won the first camel race.

In true Virginia City spirit, the Camel Races began as a hoax. Camels were introduced to the American frontier as pack animals, and were brought to the Comstock to carry salt and general supplies. As Virginia City grew and the V&T Railroad took over the drayage chores for the area, the sometimes disagreeable and smelly animals were turned loose in the hills, and eventually disappeared.

Bob Richards, late editor of Lucius Beebe's "Territorial Enterprise," wrote a fictitious account of the city's "Camel Races" in 1959, and followed up the next year with an editorial announcement of the upcoming races. Local residents, wise to this form of humor which dates back to the tall tales of Mark Twain and Dan DeQuille, early "Enterprise" reporters, watched the first real race that year.

The San Francisco "Chronicle" took up the challenge thrown down by Richards; and movie director John Huston charged to victory in that first race on a camel borrowed from the San Francisco Zoo. In 1962, Ostrich Races were added to the event, and in 1987 Virginia City took the competition to its sister city, Alice Springs, Australia, and added "International" to the title.