Also this year the camels will be racing for the 50th year, but the true 50th anniversary of the races is next September. The reason for that is the first actual race occurred in 1960, when “The Misfits” was being filmed in the northern Nevada area. The filming took an extraordinary amount of time to complete its location shooting since star Marilyn Monroe was absent for protracted amounts of time. In addition, a strong forest fire near the Donner Summit that year shut off all power to the area.
It was during one of these down times that lanky director John Huston was sitting in the bar area of the Coach Room in the Mapes Hotel (where the entire cast and crew were ensconced). With Huston was a diminutive professional jockey named Billy Pearson. As the evening wore on and the drinks continued to flow, the conversation turned to racing in general and camel racing in particular. Somehow the topic came up because the late Bob Richards, who was editor of the Territorial Enterprise newspaper in Virginia City, had written of a fictional race that was supposed to have occurred on the Comstock in 1959. He had just followed up that piece when he wrote an editorial on another upcoming fictional race for 1960. With typical acumen, and his ability to try anything once, Huston challenged his friend Pearson to a real camel race, which the latter accepted.
From that point on details are murky, but somehow Huston convinced the owner of the hotel, Charles Mapes, to act as a sponsor for the trophies and miscellaneous costs. Then Bill Harrah, of Harrah’s Club, was inveigled into scheduling a rally of the Horseless Carriage club to be held in Virginia City on the same weekend. The Horseless Carriage club members all had vintage autos and they were complete with the regalia that the driver and his lady passenger wore in those halcyon days of the early 20th century.
On the day of the race there were numerous overheated old cars, with their radiators steaming, parked on the side of the Virginia City highway. Eventually they all made it to the top of the grade.
Two camels had been dispatched to Virginia City: one a dromedary (one hump) and the other a bactrin (two humps). Since we were in charge of promoting the event, legendary local photographer Don Dondero and I climbed into the corral with the animals for some close-ups. We didn’t last long because, as widely reported, when you get too close to a camel, spit happens.
As time for the race drew near the camel handler put the reins on the two beasts and then began a vain search for the saddles. When he finally concluded that there were no saddles, he reported to me that the race would probably have to be cancelled. I relayed this info to Mapes and the two nervous jockeys. Huston walked to the corral and quickly said, “I can straddle that two-humper without a saddle!”
Pearson retorted with, “Hoist me up on that other guy and I’ll see if there is anything to hand onto!” Which there wasn’t.
Rather than disappoint the crowd of thousands who had lined the streets for the race we immediately started looking around for something to construct a makeshift saddle. There wasn’t a lot available. Suddenly we looked across the street at the school playground and spotted a tennis court, complete with net. In a few minutes we had cut the net down, left a check for the replacement and wrapped the sturdy cord around the animal’s midsection. Pearson was happy with the result. Next we proceeded to the starting line and Dondero and I commandeered a pickup truck and driver. We jumped into the bed of the truck and preceded the contestants down the street with Dondero shooting furiously.
Somehow Huston emerged the winner and at the after-race cocktail parties it was widely reported that Pearson had “taken a dive” so that his good friend could claim the crown.
Since that two-camel race occurred the event has expanded a great deal and is probably the signature special event on the Comstock. In addition to more and more camels, ostriches were added in 1962 and in 1987 Virginia City took the event to its sister city, Alice Springs, Australia, and “international” was added to the title.
If you are fortunate enough to come across a photo of the original race you can easily spot the tennis net saddle on Pearson’s mount.
Roy Powers of Harold’s Club got into the races big time in later years, and he was most famous for the odd-looking jockeys that he sent to ride the Harold’s Club entry. Two of the most notable was one in a full-sized gorilla suit and the other was a French foreign legionnaire. Powers had even convinced the press of the legionnaire’s authenticity until the fake Frenchman tried to date a female reporter who was covering the event. He made the mistake of telling her he was a pit boss at the club and that was the end of Powers’ shenanigans.
For complete information on the upcoming camel races, call 847-4386 or visit www.visitvirginiacitynv.com.
Harry Spencer is a freelance writer in Reno. His column about the past and present of northern Nevada appears weekly in the Tribune.
Editor’s note: Harry Spencer’s column is sometimes a mix of reporting and opinion. Opinions expressed in his column are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Tribune.