When I learned that there was going to be live camel and ostrich racing at Sam Houston Race Park last weekend, I immediately cleared my calendar. Crawfish boil? It would have to wait. Classical music concert at Zilkha Hall, for which I already had press passes? No competition. Birthday party later that night? Sorry, Ingrid, I’ll make it next year.
After trying with some frantic and ultimately fruitless texting to recruit a partner for my expedition, I decided I had no choice but to cover the event solo. When I rang up the SHRP on Saturday afternoon, only a few hours before post time, the woman on the other end of the line informed me that the previous night had drawn over 11,000 spectators, and that tonight’s crowd was supposed to be even larger—maybe even a track record. (Normal attendance is 4,500 on Fridays and 7,000 on Saturdays.) Apparently I wasn’t the only one intrigued by the idea of grown men and women racing exotic animals. I told her I was with the media, and she agreed to give me a media pass, although she couldn’t guarantee that I would get a seat, or even a place to stand. “Get there early,” she advised.
I never get anywhere early, and, sure enough, by the time I arrived—after making my way across the vast, Siberia-like parking lot, picking up my press badge, and wandering inside—nearly every seat in the cavernous SHRP complex was occupied. The park opens its doors at 10:30 a.m. every day for live simulcasting of races from around the world, and some of the people I saw seemed to have been at their tables all day, hunched over their race cards with beers, onion rings, and greasy napkins, watching the banks of dozens of television sets. One man had highlighted his booklet in three or four different colors, and periodically got up to go place a bet at one of the omnipresent touchscreen betting machines.
Some of the tables had private televisions and a remote control to switch between races, although this was hardly necessary given that every direction you turned there were rows and rows of TVs broadcasting every type of race imaginable: thoroughbreds, quarter horses, fillies, Arabian horses, harness racing… In one corner there was a section of tables called “Greyhound Row,” surrounded by simulcasts of dog racing from Birmingham, Palm Beach, Daytona Beach, Naples, FL, and Australia. Whole families were arrayed around long Formica tables watching their personal TVs. The tables were littered with electronic betting slips, pens, pencils, torn and discarded booklets, and food detritus.
By the time I staggered outside to the open-air bleachers by the track—blinded by fluorescent lights and disoriented from the cacophony of inscrutable PA announcements, the screams and groans of bettors, and the general ambient craziness—the second thoroughbred race of the evening was about to get underway. There was a good-sized and remarkably diverse crowd enjoying the fine weather. I spotted Sikhs in turbans, Indian women in saris, young black men in do-rags, and lots of families. Children played on a patch of grass to the side of the enclosed area. Over the course of the night, I heard English, Irish, Scottish, Australian, and Mexican accents percolating through the crowd.
The thoroughbred race was delayed when one of the horses, Show Up Jones, began having a hissy fit in his gate, repeatedly throwing off his rider and giving the lie to his name. Finally, the race began, with Doctor Romaine leading for most of the race before being overcome by a last-minute push from Seeking West on the homestretch. Show Up Jones showed up last.
When I came back inside to wait for the next race, the park had grown considerably more crowded. I had to stand in line to place my bet at one of the touch-screen consoles—despite the fact that there were hundreds of these things in every nook and cranny of the vast facility, in addition to the manned betting stations where people could place their bets in person. I put a $2 bet—my first-ever racing wager—on Eye See You at 7-2 odds, and was delighted when my horse crossed the finish line a half-length ahead of Rule Breaker. Unfortunately, I had to immediately use most of my $5.60 in winnings to purchase a clear plastic poncho, as a rainstorm had descended on the park.
The races continued despite the torrential downfall, though the weather succeeded in driving almost everyone inside, where we packed together like wet, stinking, increasingly intoxicated rats, all craning for a look through the clear glass doors at the track. After donning my poncho, I ventured back outside, where I stood under the eaves, with the few hardy smokers still puffing away, and tried to take notes underneath the poncho’s transparent plastic.
Finally, the events that I’d come to see were announced: first camel racing, and later ostrich racing. To my immense disappointment, I had learned earlier in the evening that I wouldn’t be able to place bets on either of these races. “No, no, they are just for fun,” the elderly man at the information booth informed me. It turns out the exotic animal races are an annual event at SHRP, and the camel jockeys would be local radio and television personalities who were riding for charity. The four camels were brought out in the pouring rain, each wearing a brightly colored ceremonial saddle, making them look like something out of One Thousand and One Nights, mounted by riders wearing helmets and ponchos.
At the opening bell, the camels burst out of their gates and took off at a gallop down the muddy track, zigzagging back and forth like a group of drunkards, their jockeys evidently helpless to control them. One of the camels even seemed on the verge of turning around and trotting back to the gate. All eventually made it to the end, where they stopped, allowed their riders to dismount, and then wandered around aimlessly for a while before being led back to wherever they came from. The winner of the race was “Special K” from the 104 KRBE morning show (riding a camel named Equalicam) who was given a giant $500 check that he donated to the Human Rights Campaign.
“Holy shit, that was so cool!” exclaimed a man behind me.
But the real attraction for me all along was the ostrich race. I’d seen people riding camels before, if not racing them, but ostriches? Where would the jockeys sit? How would they steer the giant birds? The answers, I soon discovered, were: 1. Way back on the ostrich’s rump, and 2. Not at all. The PA announcer informed the crowd, which had braved the rain to get a close-up look at this atavistic spectacle, that the riders (professionals this time—no room for radio jockeys in ostrich racing) would have neither saddle, reins, nor riding crop, and would basically be holding on to the bird’s backfeathers for dear life as the ostriches sprinted down the track towards their open trailer 100 yards away. Because the ostriches would not be stopping, the riders would have to dismount their winged steeds after crossing the finish line while the birds were still at full speed.
No official betting was allowed on the ostriches, but that didn’t stop the scrum of onlookers who had gathered by the starting gate. “I’ve got five bucks on number three,” one guy shouted. “You got it,” someone responded.
At the opening bell, the four giant ostriches tore out of the gates like they were being chased by lions through the African savanna. Each bird was roughly six feet tall, with spindly legs pinwheeling madly as they galloped towards home, kicking up mud all over themselves and their riders, who were clinging tight to their mounts, their heads down and their thighs gripping the ostriches’ sides. About halfway down the racecourse, a female jockey in a bright yellow rain slicker began slowly slumping sideways on her ostrich. After trying desperately to right herself, she ended up jumping free at the last second, taking a few rolls in the mud before getting up, covered in grime but otherwise apparently unhurt. Miraculously, everyone else held on until the end before bailing from their birds. At least one of the jockeys even managed a standing dismount, no mean feat considering how fast the ostriches were going. As planned, the ostriches ran directly into their trailer, which was quickly closed up and driven off before they had a chance to get loose.
Afterwards, the four diminutive ostrich jockeys—none appeared to be taller than 5’5”—posed for a group photo, and the winning jockey was handed a trophy and interviewed by a SHRP sideline reporter. Apparently it was the jockey who had won the same race the night before. The reporter asked what his secret was. Although it was hard to hear, I think he said: “I just tried to hold on.”