Glamour camel Hookmup’s start in the 400m final was the reason for Don’s hidden nervousness.
A few months earlier the camel was running wild in the desert around Alice Springs.
Now he had arrived in Boulia nicknamed the Black Caviar of camel racing. Six starts for six wins, including three cups, were under Hookmup’s hump. Perched at the back of the hump in the 400m charges had been a small bloke wisecracking in a wicked Irish accent who had driven up the Birdsville Track in a Celica sedan.
“How the hell did that car get here?” a bar attendant hollered as she peered out the Birdsville pub window.
Came the reply in a lilting brogue: “I drove it.”
From where? An Irish finger pointed eloquently down the track towards Marree and Aaron soon tootled off, rubbing hubs with 4WDs on the road to Boulia.
Tony and I had lobbed into Boulia a few days earlier to relax in Isabel for the week leading up to the iconic outback event that had been on my must-do list for years. Boulia had a good deal where for an extra $10 on your two-day ticket you get to camp at the showgrounds for close to two dusty weeks.
Among our diverse neighbours were a deer-hunting Taupo dentist and his attractive wife and a sharp Victorian professional woman (no, not that sort, a business consultant) who scooted around the world as a hot air balloon pilot and balloon racing judge. (Think you have luggage problems? Try packing a hot air balloon for your next flight.) On the other side were a Zambian-born woman and American guy who had been married, had a family, divorced for 11 years and then remarried. Then there was the Tasmanian guy who talked in decibels that would have been audible had he still been the other side of Bass Strait.
Then there were the strings of camels exercising, trialling, bellowing, kicking up dust and practising in slow motion for the barrel racing feature that would also be contested in slow motion. Camels are not clever when it comes to steering and cornering.
Tony studied form and declared a pale, slightly built camel called Dolly was showing a fair turn of pace. She would be the one to watch and back.
Cheerful Robyn Anesbury stopped by to check out Isabel. Learning she was “with the camels”, I jumped at the chance to visit the camel camp where Robyn and Don had their rust-coloured double swag in the red dust beside their dusty vehicle. What a wondrous world we have when one can now buy swags that match the dust of the interior.
We met jockeys Stuart Brown and Aaron. Back home in Cork, the Sweeney folks are in disbelief that Aaron is hurtling around tracks in the outback on the back of racing camels. He rode horses back home and was the All-Ireland champion three years in a row in the odd equestrian art of riding racing trotters.
When he came to Australia he ended up riding picnic races around Scone, where Stuart took him under his wing and persuaded him to try camel racing. They lobbed into Forbes at Easter where Don Anesbury was introducing Hookmup to the circuit.
Don felt an affinity with camels when he was stationed in the 1970s at Maree, where the Oodnadatta Track meets the Birdsville Track in north of South Australia. Marree has camel races once a year. Don decided to go down the dromedary track. He made his move 22 years ago, jumping on a motorbike to ride out into the desert and rope his own beast of burden.
He trained and rode his racing camels, starting with Weetbix. Crystal is his favourite: she’s won him nearly $40,000 around the circuit. Courageous on the track, she’s quiet enough to be ridden by women and kids. Money would not buy her.
“I owe a lot to camels,” said Don. He’s found them a source of solace in times of stress and admits racing them can be a challenge.
“They don’t steer at all well. They cut across in front of each other, zig-zag, turn around and go back the other way.”
These days Don leaves the race rides to younger, lighter blokes. He sticks to training and handling on race days. And he’s always had his eye out for that special racing camel.
When a mate at Kings Creek near Uluru rang him about a tall camel he had caught, Don’s ears pricked up. “When he described him, I said to get me a photo. Quickly. Everything about the camel – wide chest, red colour – told me he was a racer.”
Hookmup was aged about seven. Don took it easy and lined him up for Forbes at Easter. Along came Irish Aaron and to everyone’s astonishment the duo bolted in for a win in the 400m heat despite a hairy time over the first 100m.
“Once I got him going he was just passing camels one by one,” said Aaron. The next day the pair shot home to win the final. They repeated the performance at the start of the July circuit, racing at Marree and Bedourie for another four starts for four wins. One win was from a sitting start when Hookmup refused to stand before the gun fired.
Hookmup was the talk of the town by the time the Anesburys arrived in Boulia. Camels were paraded, the crowd started buzzing, bets were laid and all eyes turned to the start of the first 400m heat. Down the track came dromedaries, lurching, lunging, pausing and turning around. About 50m from the finish line the fair Dolly decided it was all too much and sat down.
Most camels compete over 400m and again over 1000m for the Boulia Cup (the final of which is run over 1500m). Hookmup had only the shorter event (he’s too green to race over distance yet) and sadly he was Aced in the heat, coming second but still qualifying for the final.
That was not sad for Ace’s owner Glenda Sutton, a tiny legend who once rode racehorses in track work until a chance came by in 1998 to race camels in the United Arab Republic. At 23 she quickly learnt to ride a different type of creature, raced in the Middle East and returned to buy her own camels. She’s now 38 and she can’t imagine life without her humped friends. She races them, she takes paying customers for rides and she has worked on films such as Tracks, Kangaroo Jack and the television series Inside Nature’s Giants.
Caring for camels on the road is exhausting work, lugging buckets of water and bales of hay, but Glenda lavishes her “best friends” with kindness, discipline, love and occasional kisses. She reckons camels are the most misunderstood and most resilient animals in the world.
“I’m as close as you can get to them. We have a great relationship but you can never completely trust them, even though they are the sweetest creatures. Camels are more deeply affected by things than people realise. They think so much and question everything. You can see them saying ‘Why are you doing this?’
“People look at them and see 800kg of unpredictably but I see a tiny, delicate thing.”
Glenda’s tiny delicate things have won the Boulia Cup three times, won 11 of 11 races (not counting the consolation) at Boulia in 2008. Her star Chief set an Australian record with 14 wins.
This year Ace won his 1000m heat as well as the 400m but the finals on Sunday were not so lucrative for the camel queen from Shepparton. Bumping at the start was too rough for him. The cup was won by popular local runner Uncle Bob, with Anesbury camels second and third.
And Hookmup? He flattened out and won the 400m final in the record time of 34.75 seconds. Don Anesbury’s usually inscrutable face had a grin as wide as the Strzelecki.
Then it was on to the Winton races for the Anesburys. We won’t go there. Suffice to say Hookmup’s nickname was changed to Red Caviar – but I’d sure like to see that camel racing again at Boulia next year.