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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Camels Prove Their Racing Mettle




The four shaggy figures wobbled from side to side as they moved slowly through falling snow toward the starting line at Moscow's Hippodrome on Sunday.


A bell clanged, and the four Bactrian camels burst into a gallop. Four hundred meters later, a doe-eyed humped quadruped named Gyulchatai crossed the finish line to become the winner in the first-ever camel race at the Hippodrome.


"Brilliant," said jockey Vitaly Andrykhovich who rode Gyulchatai to victory in front of a crowd of more than 4,000 spectators. "She was just warming up. It was like she'd just had 100 grams [of vodka]."


Sponsored by Mercedes-Benz dealership Almo-Avtoform, which affixed the carmaker's famous logo to the hind quarters of each of the camels, the event was generally deemed a success by bettors and organizers alike, with Hippodrome deputy director Alexander Kalinin promising more such races to come.


"You can see how people like it," said seasoned racegoer Valera Nikulin, 59. "[But] it was too short. Some people didn't even get to see it, it was so quick. It should have been 1 kilometer."


Some spectators, however, were slightly less impressed. "They'll be having elephants next," grumbled one dissatisfied racegoer.


Still, the outcome was considerably smoother than some had expected. In the hours before the race, the camels' owner Anatoly Smekhunov and the jockeys had been equally unsure how the animals would react at the start of the race. There was even a chance that instead of running, the four female camels - on temporary loan from a circus near Moscow - would revert to their standard performance behavior in front of a huge crowd and begin dancing. (The waltz is the camels' specialty.)


"We're worried. They're worried," Smekhunov said before the race. "We don't know how they'll behave. They're used to an audience but we don't know. Animals are animals."


Smekhunov purchased his unusual pets three years ago when a camel cooperative farm in Kazakhstan collapsed. He snapped them up for a song at the time, but now that they have been trained to dance, he said, they are worth as much as $4,000 apiece.


"I'm Sukhov to them," he joked, referring to the hero of the classic Russian film "Beloye Solntse Pustyni" or "White Sun of the Desert." All four of his camels - Fatima, Shaila, Jamila and the fleet-footed Gyulchatai - are named after female characters in the movie.


A good camel, he added, can be judged by its hump: "If the hump stands up then that means they're well fed. In Kazakhstan they don't stand up," Smekhunov said. "Ours stand up."


When they first arrived in central Russia, the camels were half wild and prone to spit, but Smekhunov said they are in fact good-natured creatures.


"If you treat them well, they're good," he said.


One camel, however, didn't take too kindly to the Russian and foreign paparazzi who descended in droves on the event, spraying with spittle one photographer trying to take her picture. Two hours later, the camel spit - made of regurgitated cud - was still stubbornly stuck to the photographer's shoulders.


Smekhunov and the jockeys had trained for a month before the race. Cushions were placed in between the camel's two humps to act as saddles. Camels have a particularly bony bit in between the humps, said Alexei Smekhunov, Anatoly's son and a veteran circus horse rider, who rode Shaila in the race.


"I've already got a square bottom from childhood," Alexei said. "I'm used to it."


His experience didn't help him in the race, however, where he placed second to Andrykhovich, a seasoned horse jockey who steamed to victory from the start. At the finish line, someone asked the winner how fast his camel actually ran.


"We've got a Mercedes sign," he said, pointing to the car emblem hanging from the rear of his camel. "But we haven't got a speedometer."