Heart of the Na­tion

The Weekend Australian - Magazine - - Inbox -

When the starter pis­tol goes off at the Alice Springs Camel Cup to­day, who knows what will hap­pen? Some of th­ese camels – a mix of farm-bred, res­cued and wild-caught beasts – are nat­u­ral rac­ers and will launch from the sit­ting start with gusto, hit­ting their straps at over 60km/h, their jock­eys hang­ing on for dear life. But they’re just as likely to not get up, or to run in the wrong direc­tion, or to start strong but lose in­ter­est half­way through the race and sit down again. And woe be­tide any jockey who whips them too hard. “I had one bloke who did that, and the camel reached round and chomped his foot!” says Neil Waters, who’s been sup­ply­ing an­i­mals to the rid­ers – sea­soned com­peti­tors and have-a-go novices alike – for years. Even this vet­eran cameleer Alice Springs 0870 ad­mits he can’t pick the good run­ners by looks alone. “They ei­ther have the heart for rac­ing or they don’t,” he says.

The Camel Cup, which be­gan in 1971 as a duel be­tween two mem­bers of the local Lions Club, is tra­di­tion­ally held on a 400m cir­cuit at Blather­skite Park, but this year it’s been moved to a 300m straight course at the Alice Springs Turf Club. (Waters isn’t happy about that. “I’m not in­ter­ested in straight rac­ing,” he grum­bles). Still, fans of this odd sport have plenty of other op­tions: over in Queens­land, Be­dourie holds its an­nual camel races to­day, with Bou­lia and Win­ton to fol­low later this month.

So, any tips for novice jock­eys? “Just sit back and ride ’em like a horse,” of­fers Waters – but he ad­mits that see­ing city types “with their bum three feet off the sad­dle be­cause they’re bounc­ing that hard al­ways gives the crowd a good laugh”.

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