On 19 - 20 July 1997 Boulia proudly presented Australia's first international camel races - the “Desert Sands 2000”.
Above: First Boulia Camel Races on 19 & 30 July 1997. Camel 'Mariah' winning the 400m.
Racing camels in Australia is nearly as meat pie and VB stubbies. With the resurgence of camels back in the '60s and '70s, the classic Australian camel race was born in Alice Springs. It was short and sweet, but the crowd loved it.
Since racing spread far and wide in Australia, with some races being the real deal and others display (exhibition) races. In 1997, The Boulia Desert Sands changed the Australian camel racing scene.
There was $25,000 prize money, longer races, microchipped camels, legal bookies, lighter jockeys and, probably for the first time, there were trained racing camels. Good competition prevailed. Drug testing was also introduced and more racing events have followed.
Australia has sold only a small number of potential racing camels to Middle Eastern countries. Good world-class racing camels have their origins in places like Sudan or Somalia, and now, with many years of high-tech research, controlled breeding programs and good racing competition, these genetics will win a few more races. These camels are much finer-boned and have lankier bodies, whereas Australian camels are much more thick set.
The Gulf is the elite camel racing capital of the world, particularly in the UAE Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Three, six, eight and ten kilometre races are run. Competition is fierce and the prizes are amazing. On a big weekend at the height of the season, it is nothing to see 20 or 30 brand new cars making up the weekend's prizes. Mechanical jockeys are now used instead of young boys. There are now no human rights problems and everyone is happy. I would doubt very much that Australian camels could ever compete with UAE animals in their top level of competition. Maybe in the shorter 400 metre sprints, we might succeed.
The Boulia Camel Races have continued on after Paddy’s departure and has become an iconic outback event that is the most significant event within the Boulia Shire annually. (Source: www.paddymchugh.com/camel_australia.html)
Pictured: Paddy McHugh
The story for Boulia began with a conversation in the Dajarra Hotel between Paddy McHugh and Bob Spilsbury.
In the words of Paddy McHugh...
“We caught 1,000 wild camels and out of that we transported and sold 33 to the royal family in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. We spent a bit of time there and saw what a massive industry it was, so we tried to emulate something in Australia that could make our camels worth some money. So we introduced professional camel racing.
We went to the Diamantina Shire, to the Boulia Shire and to the Mount Isa Shire with the idea of introducing a professional camel race and Boulia Shire welcomed us with open arms. They said bring it here we’ll back you all the way.
We marketed and sold it, myself and my wife for five years and the crew of everyone else in the community, which was a fabulous effort. We also for the first time introduced substantial prize money with $30,000. It never quite got to what the Middle East standard was, but that’s another story. A lot of people said it will never work in Boulia, it’s a stupid idea, but it did and it worked very well.
In Boulia we began the change from Australia’s predominately tourism-oriented camel races to a full-blown professional affair. The distance of the races was lengthened, drug testing and microchipping of the camels was put in place and an act of parliament for the first time allowed legal bookmakers at camel races in Australia. ”
Pictured: Val Spilsbury
In the words of Val Spilsbury, Bob Spilsbury's wife...
“It was Bob and Patty that brought the camel races to Boulia, and the CEO of council, Chris Blanch who worked with them.
We had a female camel called Mariah – she was in the first race in 1997. We bought her off Paddy 10 weeks before the races, Paddy had trained her. She came second against the army camel ‘Jessie’ in the Final. The army boys used to have a camel, I think perhaps they came from Townville. Mariah was always a bridesmaid at the races.”