Lemon, the camel, is used to sprinting down dusty outback tracks but since the pandemic hit, her regular racetrack has become the weekend markets with children as substitute jockeys.
- Veteran camel racer says he thinks interest is growing in the industry since COVID-19 cancelled races
- Mr Richardson has raced camels for more than 30 years
- The Boulia Camel Race is one of the first to be held since COVID-19 shut down the industry
The camel-racing industry is yet to get back into full swing after the COVID-19 shutdown, and with some races still cancelled in 2021, local markets are the camels’ best bet for exercise.
Central Queensland camel owner John Richardson said he waited until the children finished their rides before telling them they had ridden a racing camel capable of running 65 kilometres an hour.
“We only take the best [most well-behaved] camels along for the kids to ride,” Mr Richardson said.
The Nankin man has offered camel rides at the local markets for 30 years. But 2020 was the first year since 1988 when he didn’t have a camel race lined up.
Thrill of the race
Mr Richardson was an amateur horse jockey. But he became immersed in the camel-racing industry in 1985 after hearing about a camel race from Uluru to the Gold Coast.
Mr Richardson, who is popularly known as “camel man”, bought his first two camels from Gracemere, near Rockhampton, in preparation for The Great Australian Camel Race held as part of the bicentenary celebration in 1988.
He said the race ignited a burning competitiveness within, which changed his focus from thoroughbred steeds to ones with humps.
“Being an amateur jockey, horse trainer and sapphire miner, I don’t mind a challenge,” Mr Richardson said.
His camel, Capricorn, went on to win the race and gave him his first taste of an industry, which has taken him across the country and become a major part of his life.
Since 1988, Mr Richardson has raced at almost 50 different tracks and has won more than $100,000 in prize money, including a $10,000 race at the Royal Randwick Racecourse in 2000.
“I’ve had a lot of success, but it’s been hard work too,” he said.
“I’ve been to Geelong, Forbes, Scone, Winton, Queanbeyan, Bathurst, Charleville, Tara, Blackall and Boulia.
His years in the industry are reflected in the shine of his trophy cabinets, filled to the brim with prizes, and memorabilia.
“I don’t think there’d be too many that’s probably achieved some of the things that I have since 1985,” he said.
“I’m a determined sort of a bugger, and I don’t like running second.”
While the pensioner’s jockey days are behind him, he says it is never say never when it comes to getting back on the camel.
“If someone was to put a challenge up, I would certainly take them on, so don’t get me wrong there,” Mr Richardson said.
But he said his love for the sport and competitive spirit didn’t get in the way of him having a good time racing his star-studded pack.
“We’ve got Blinx, he’s the half-brother to Winx [a retired Australian thoroughbred racehorse]. He’s a great little camel,” Mr Richardson said.
“Blinx has the same colours as what Winx races in, and when Troy [the jockey] rides for me, he’s Hughey Bowman [an Australian thoroughbred racing jockey].”
A country love affair
Each year thousands of people attend the Outback Queensland Camel Festival Trail from Birdsville to Winton in the west of the state.
One of the festival’s popular events is the Boulia Camel Races.
Its secretary Shelley Norton said the population of the town, located on the edge of the Simpson Desert, increased tenfold for the annual event.
“We go from a population of about 300 to a population of 3000 for Boulia,” she said.
The races were cancelled due to the pandemic in 2020 but will resume this year.
Ms Norton said the committee had received an increased number of inquiries for the event, which grew in popularity each year.
“It’s something that has to be seen because the camels are so unpredictable unlike when you see other racing with animals,” she said.
“You can’t train a camel to do exactly what you want them to do … they can turn around and go the other way, they can sit down or zigzag [down the track].”