For one day every summer, camels, zebras, ostriches, and a whole bunch of other unusual animals run on Canterbury Park's tracks for Extreme Race Day. But for Joe Hedrick, it’s just another Saturday.
For over 40 years, Hedrick has provided exotic animals for racetracks, state fairs, and festivals, including this weekend’s annual bash.
Hedrick and his wife, Sondra, live in Kansas where they operate a bed & breakfast that is also home to between 300 and 400 animals. In addition to racing, the couple travels the country setting up petting zoos and providing animal actors for live theater presentations and holiday celebrations.
“I like to say that I got started when my Uncle Noah decided to get a bunch of animals for his boat. Or, I guess it was more of an arc,” Hedrick laughs.
In reality, the actual story is just as good.
“My dad was a rodeo clown, so I grew up around animals,” he says. “At first he had a llama, then a couple of buffalo, and it just sort of grew from there.”
Hedrick would follow in his father’s oversized footsteps, becoming a rodeo clown himself for more than 20 years. During that time, he began acquiring other animals, such as zebras and camels. Then, 35 years ago, he decided to start racing them.
“It started with camels, and then I started getting requests from state fairs and county fairs to add new animals,” he explains.
Today, his herd includes giraffes, kangaroos, and antelopes, though not all of them are racers.
“It’s pretty strictly ostriches, camels, and zebras at this point,” he says.
While Hedrick might be the keeper of the animals, the one role he can’t play when he comes to town is extreme animal jockey. For the event at Canterbury, he recruits horse jockeys to take the reigns, though he says anyone with an athletic background can get the hang of it.
“Most jockeys have to be 130 pounds or less. That’s still the right size for the zerbas or the camels,” he explains. “But when it comes to teaching someone how to ride [the exotic animals], the key is to have balance. People who are cyclists or skiers who understand how to shift their weight typically do pretty well. Every once in a while you get someone who thinks riding an ostrich or a camel is all fun and games and ends up falling off, but most people know to respect the animals and have fun with it.”
Hedrick also uses events like these to educate curious visitors and dispel myths about the animals. One common misperception, he says, is that camels store water in their humps. (They don't.)
At the end of the day, however, Hedrick says that the appeal of Extreme Race Day and exotic animal racing is still the sheer spectacle of it all.
“This is one of those sports that you can’t see on TV,” he says. “It’s something you have to come to the racetrack to see in person for yourself.”
IF YOU GO:
Extreme Race Day
Saturday, July 14