This year marks Penn National’s seventh year hosting its unique racing event: camel and ostrich races.
On July 8th, thousands gathered at the Penn National Race Course, many lining the rails hours early, to watch professional jockeys mount exotic animals and loop around the track, racing for first place on the backs of giant birds and desert quadrupeds.
“We have been planning on this for about a month. It’s not a joke,” said Jessica Wheeler, who came to the event with her family.
Conventionally, camels have been ridden as a form of transportation for milenia, and camel racing is still an immensely popular sport in Pakistan, Mongolia, Australia, Western Asia, and in Africa’s northern and eastern regions. Ostrich racing is rarely seen outside of Southern Africa.
Most jockeys had difficulty staying on their avian mounts and at times even controlling which direction their birds were going. For many spectators, this was their first time seeing this thrilling, unorthodox sight. “I thought we just let [the ostriches] go and they just ran,” Wheeler commented. “I didn’t think people rode them. So that’s even more exciting.”
“People are falling off and they start doing circles and stuff. it’s pretty cool,” said Jonathan Lloyd, a professional jockey for more than two decades. For him, the lack of control is part of the appeal. “I’m a firm believer, like, control is overrated, and this is a perfect example of ‘control is overrated,’” said Lloyd. “You go with the flow.”
Joe Hedricks, president of the Kansas-based Hendrick Promotions that supplies the race track with camels and ostriches, has his own advice on riding these giant birds.
“I tell the jockeys that are going to be riding it, it’s all about balance,” says Hedrick. “If you’re a water-skier or wakeboarder or snowboarder, 4-wheeler. All about balance. And courage to do it. You can’t have second thoughts. You got to be into it if you’re going to do it, but balance is the most important part.”
The idea to bring camel and ostrich races to Penn National was pitched by Director of Racing Eric Johnston, and at the time, it was met with a lot of skepticism. “He introduced this idea to his board and they thought he hit his head and fell off a racehorse or something,” recalled Hedrick. “And the first year, there was a crowd like you couldn’t believe it.”
Now, the event is one of the biggest in the season for Penn National, and more and more people every year discover this rare sport and flock to the race track to see it with their own eyes.