I’ve never been much of a gambler.  When I play poker, I don’t consider it betting so much as I do donating to the other players.  When I went to Vegas I got more pleasure out of the fountains outside of the Bellagio than I did losing my money for a hotel room playing the Gilligan’s Island slot machine.  And back in the podunk town I grew up in, I never once won at cow bingo in all the years I played it at the Fourth of July fair.  That was where they drew a big grid on the grass, fenced it off, and let a cow hang out inside the enclosure until she did that thing cows do whenever they feel like it.  Whichever square on the grid the cow “picked” was the winner.No matter — I love the horse track.  The thunder of the hooves, the cheers from the audience, the beer served in plastic cups that you can’t smash on the ground out of frustration.  There’s no greater feeling in the world than scrutinizing the program before a race, picking the horse with the funniest name, placing some outrageous bet on him like $5 or even $10, and then sitting back smoking a cigar the size of a telephone while I watch him lose so I can move on to my next pick.

That passion takes me to Canterbury Park in Shakopee pretty often.  As much as I love the horses, though, I sometimes wish I could watch the slightly more exotic animals race.  I want animals out of an Indiana Jones movie to lope around the track while I look on in amazement, or even giant birds to sprint around the thing while the jockeys riding them desperately grope for a way to hold on to those bodies by Dr. Seuss.

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The people at Canterbury Park know I’m not the only one who feels that way, so that’s why this year on Saturday, July 15th they’re holding their annual Extreme Race Day.  It’s on this occasion that they have camels, zebras, and ostriches at their race track for a family friendly day of watching foreign creatures vie to see who’s the fastest among themselves.  There’s no betting on Extreme Race Day, save for that which you might care to do with your friends.  Instead, It’s all about the shock you experience when you witness how silly a camel looks when it runs.

“It’s always unusual,” said Jeff Maday, media relations manager of Canterbury Park.  “The animals are a blast to watch, which is why Extreme Race Day is our most popular event of the year.  The zebras are good-natured, but they’re still a lot wilder than our thoroughbreds.  The same goes for the camels — in 2012 the mayor of Shakopee himself rode one, and he did great!  The ostriches give their riders the hardest time of all, though.  The jockeys say riding one is like sitting on a football.  You’re lucky to finish a race on an ostrich.”

Of course, economics demand that Canterbury Park doesn’t keep these exotic animals around only to race one day a year.  Instead, they’re brought up here courtesy of Joe Hedrick, proprietor of Hedrick’s Exotic Animal Farm Bed and Breakfast in Nickerson, Kansas.  Joe has lived for 72 years and has worked on a ranch for all but three of them.  I reached out to Joe for insider secrets.

“Raising exotic animals presents unusual challenges.  They all have much different personalities than your typical domesticated livestock.  I’ve raised ostriches for 40 years now, and I’ve raced them for 30.  They’re one of the strongest animals on earth in terms of pure leg strength.  They can carry up to 150 pounds!  They eat a gallon of grain, corn, oats, and sunflower and flax seed a day.  My biggest ostrich weighs 450 pounds now.”

I had to ask.

“No, they don’t stick their heads in the sand.”

I had to ask again.

“No, the camels don’t spit!  Bactrian camels do.  Mine are dromedaries.  Dromedaries don’t spit.  If one of my guests at my bed and breakfast tells me a camel spit on them, I ask them how many humps that camel had.  If they say it had one hump, that means it was a dromedary, and dromedaries don’t spit.”

I said that I thought zebras wouldn’t put up with being ridden.

“Very few wild animals do.  I breed and hand raise mine from birth, though, so they’re much friendlier than the ones you’d find on the veldt.  All of my animals grow up right here in Nickerson.  I have more than 60 camels, 40 zebras, and 40 ostriches, kangaroos, giraffes, and bison.  The giraffes aren’t for racing, though.  It’d be too hard to get them to the race track.  My animals are solely for entertainment and education.  We have a lot of field trips on my farm, and people love coming to spend the night there so they can wake up and see my boys in action.”

Let me preface by saying I have nothing against Minnesotan animals.  We have the best deer, the finest cows, and the most congenial dogs in the whole world.  But once in awhile, I find myself pining to watch more dramatic creatures, be they humped, striped, or in possession of comical, serpentine necks.  It’s out of that desire that I’m grateful for Joe’s animals and Canterbury Park where they’ll race this month.  You’ll find me there, excited and cheering and pretending that I can tell before the race which of the ostriches will be the fastest of them all.


By David Scheller