If you're heading to Canterbury Park on Saturday looking to lay down a few exactas, you're in for a surprise. While there will be some four-legged, hooved animals racing on the track, the betting windows will be closed. There are, after all, no provisions for gambling on jockey-ridden camels, which will be alternating with ostriches on Saturday's slate.
"I would imagine it won't be hard to make a friendly bet or two," said event organizer Joe Hedrick. "It's been known to happen."
Such friendly wagers are as commonplace in these parts as unusual animal races.
Nevis, Minn., just held its annual pig races, and Longville, Minn., is the site of turtle "sprints" every Thursday this summer; in September, Worthington's signature birds will stage their annual grudge match vs. birds from another town that purports to be the nation's turkey capital, Cuero, Texas.
Last weekend's Winona County Fair and the mid-August Beltrami County Fair feature something called sheep sock races.
"You put socks on the sheep's feet," said Cindy Timm, president of the Winona County Fair Board, "and if the sheep lose them, you have to put them back on and start over again."
Barring untoward circumstances -- too heavy a rider, faulty equipment, malnourishment -- such competition tends to be harmless, said Dr. Sharon Hurley, a small-animal veterinarian in New Ulm.
Sometimes it's even natural. "I have chickens and I let them free-range, and in the evening I call them in and they come trucking in, just like in 'Chicken Run,'" Hurley said. "I have some Indian runner ducks, and they literally line up to run."
Pigs, she added, "are very social animals, so where one goes, the other ones go. They're also very food-motivated and have a real sweet tooth, so a lot of them are trained with Oreo cookies. They are like 'You've got food, I'm headed in that direction.'"
Pig races are especially popular in the South, and just south of here cockroach races have been staged by the Iowa State Etymology Club. Elsewhere, everything from porcupines (Idaho) to lobsters (South Carolina) to armadillos (Texas) have had their own competitions. For years, all Petco stores nationwide held a Hamster Ball Derby, with the rodents trying to outrace one another inside small orbs.
Hedrick got his start in this realm early, as the son of a rodeo clown. "We always had trained animals around when I was growing up," said the Arkansas-based entrepreneur. "So I had a guy ask me, 30-plus years ago, if I could do ostrich races. So I did, and a couple of years later we added the camels."
Hedrick Promotions now keeps more than 70 ostriches and 50 camels at a Kansas farm.
While ostriches have a reputation for being a bit truculent, Hedrick said that they tend to be docile when traveling.
"When you move them around, it mellows them out a whole lot," he said. "But when they're on their territory at the farm, it's their dominion."
On Saturday, though, they'll be focused on the finish line. And next year, the world's largest birds and largest dromedaries might be joined by another group of competitors indigenous to Africa.
"We're working with some zebras," Hedrick said, "and they're coming along really good."
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643