It was a weekend like no other for Sam Houston Race Park. The fourth annual Camel Night Races packed the house, attracting a crowd of more than 24,500 to the venue (the usual combined attendance for Friday/Saturday night averages 11,500). The wildly popular two-night affair, which features local media personalities racing down the track on the back of the exotic animals, is consistently the biggest event of the year for the racetrack.
And this year, I had the thrill of being part of it. I jumped at the chance to participate (how often does an opportunity to camel race come along?) Curiosity got the best of me. Plus, Sam Houston makes a $500 donation to the winner’s charity of choice.
Never in my wildest imagination did I ever picture myself clinging to the back of a camel in front of a crowd of thousands, but last weekend, it happened.
I competed in Saturday night's race, facing some tough competition: Sarah Pepper (Hot 95-7) and Lauren Finkelstein (Mix 96.5) each returned for their second year, while Haley Hernandez (KPRC Channel 2) joined me in the novice category. (Friday night’s lineup featured: Special K (104 KRBE), Dinah (94.5 The Buzz), Jay Rodriguez (Sunny 99.1) and Bobby Romeo (non-media), who replaced a last minute drop out — and won.)
Arriving, I signed a waiver — and my life away — and joined my fellow competitors for quick instructions from camel wrangler Joe Hedrick.
“It’s a dangerous event, it really is. I mean, just like a racehorse you can fall off that camel going down the track and it could hurt. This ain’t no pansy event,” Hedrick stated. He wasn’t kidding.
You’re given a leg up, hoisted into position behind the hump of the large beast. There is no saddle, only an L-shaped, curved bar to hang onto, held in place by ropes. Balance is key. Lean too much to either side and you run the risk of falling off the camel.
“It’s a dangerous event, it really is. I mean, just like a racehorse you can fall off that camel going down the track and it could hurt. This ain’t no pansy event."
The best strategy is to place one hand on the front of the bar, and the other on the side of it, while sitting up as straight as you can. While there’s a weight restriction to compete (160 pounds), for those of you considering throwing your hat in the ring for next year, I would suggest you factor in height as well.
Reaching over the hump for the front of the bar was a stretch for this 5-foot-3 contender.
As we climbed onboard and made our way to the start, Hedrick's last words to us, which he’d repeated several times as we were prepping, were, “Remember, you don’t have to do this. If at any point you don’t feel comfortable, don’t do it. But say something now. Once we open the starting gate, the race is on.”
It was then that Sarah Pepper’s camel jumped. It was a nervous moment for us all as we watched her struggle to stay on the animal as it jerked a few times before settling back down. She held on like a champ, but ended up making the decision to call it quits. And no one blamed her. There was no repercussion; a jockey simply filled in.
Once we got to the starting line we dismounted our camels for a few minutes only to remount once they were inside their respective gates. Anxiety grew as I waited for the gate to swing open, trying to remember my instructions. And then we were off. (For the record, camels are quick, able to keep up with horses over short distances.)
The 100-yard dash to the finish line is mostly a blur. Leaning way forward, as I was told not to do, happened organically as I grasped to reach the front of the bar. As a result, I popped out of position bouncing up and down dramatically for what felt like an eternity.
For the record, camels are quick, able to keep up with horses over short distances.
As my camel finally slowed, a wrangler quickly came running up to help me off. I was hanging off the side, but I stuck in there (there was no way I was letting go). Having lost all perspective, I assumed I'd stopped short of completing the race and, thus, defaulted. As it turns out, I’d crossed the finish line . . . in first place. And a win's a win.
Overall, my experience was super exciting — positive and fun, even with a few slight frights (Pepper’s aforementioned incident and my near fall). It's a gratifying feeling to face fear head-on and come out on top. What's more, it's a pleasure to give the $500 check from Sam Houston Race Park to CultureMap’s designated charity Kids’ Meals.
Thank you, Sam Houston Race Park, for the opportunity. The adventure was one for the books. And thank you Chad Pitt, Meghan Schnakenburg and crew for cheering us on, and for sticking around after to have a beer with us as we waited for our nerves to calm.
As for next year, I’m a little too sore still to make the call as to whether or not I’d like to defend my title, but I definitely have suggestions for new blood. I’m talking to you Drew Karedes (KHOU), Maggie Flecknoe (CW 39) and Rebecca Spera (ABC 13).
I’ll have tips and a post-race beer waiting.