Behind the Scenes at the Ostrich Derby and Cameltonian

Hannah Keyser
Hannah Keyser / Hannah Keyser

The whole race only took about about 20 seconds. And that was for the camels. The ostrich-drawn chariots took even less time, but it's hard to tell for sure without a really discernible start or finish line. In both races, however, all of the participating animals ran—and ran in the correct direction—and because of that, the Meadowlands third annual Ostrich Derby and Cameltonian was a success.

"Come Saturday, three of them might decide to run the right direction and one might decide to run in circles," animal handler Monte McClurg said last Thursday about the camels, who can reach speeds of 35 mph.

As for the ostriches? “These ostriches are about as trained as an ostrich can be," McClurg said. Which appears to be a low standard for comparison. So the forward motion Saturday evening was something to celebrate; but McClurg understands that even if chaos had ensued, well, that would be its own kind of success.

“We’re here to entertain people, so if it takes us an extra three seconds to get across the end of the track, that’s probably for the better," he said. "That’s three more seconds of entertainment.”

The races, which you couldn't bet on (at least, not "officially," I was told), took place in between the regular harness races Saturday evening at the New Jersey sports complex just outside Manhattan. It was one of two races for the four camels and three ostriches this past weekend, but don't worry about a rough life on the road for these ungulates and ratites.

Each of the 70-or-so camels raised and trained on Hedrick’s Exotic Animal Farm in Nickerson, KS—which is also responsible for the ostriches—only travel to three or four races each year, spending most of their time back at farm. (Although, in December, they do take some time to work the nativity circuit.)

This race featured Snickers, Tantor, and two of their barnmates, although all four were re-branded with more pun-heavy names for the programs. The pack ranged in age from 5 to 10 years old, which is young for camels, who can live up to 40. And each, according to McClurg, has his own gregarious personality.

“Next time someone tells you how mean camels are, you can correct them," he said as Snickers went in for a kiss.

And it's true—the animals were all nuzzles and curiosity on the drizzly media morning. McClurg went so far in his praise of Snickers, who he described as an "honest camel," to say that, "If he was a human, I’d be proud to have him as a son."

The ostriches, however, were unable to join us on the concourse out of concern for their unpredictability. Brains the size of your thumbnail make it tricky to train them to do much besides run relatively straight. And although they can be ridden, at the Meadowlands, the towering flightless birds pulled brightly colored chariots which can be disengaged from their harnesses with a parachute-style quick release at speeds up to 25 mph.

Despite disparaging reports, the three ostriches seemed friendly enough back in the barn, where they shared a single stall. Their wide eyes and permanently down-turned beaks gave them an unshakable disapproving look, but they meandered unafraid towards the crowd of reporters. We were quickly told, however, not to read too much into their apparent interest in us: Handler A.J. Augusto reasoned that they must think the camera clicks were the sound of another ostrich munching some hidden, desirable food.

Check out the videos below for a taste of ostrich and camel racing and keep an eye out—they might be coming to a racetrack near you soon.

All photos courtesy of Hannah Keyser.