Feature Britain has fallen in love with an exotic addition to its racing circuit, but it can mean a bumpy ride for the amateur hump jockeys.
Camel derby favourites
Britain has fallen in love with an exotic addition to its racing circuit, but it can mean a bumpy ride for the amateur hump jockeys, reports Jonny Beardsall. Photography by Peter Dench. Sophia is on fine form today. As the starter's flag is lowered to signal the off, this strangely beautiful camel takes one look at the crowd gathered at Garthorpe racecourse, near Melton Mowbray in central England, decides this is rather fun and bucks off her jockey, Edward Collins, in her first two strides. "Mine was the briefest career ever in camel racing," says the 30-year-old wine merchant, after jogging on foot to the finish in a controlled display of grim bravado. "I hope someone took a photograph. " Camel racing in Britain is in its infancy. That it bears scant resemblance to the closely-contested races at Al Wathba and Al Maqam racetracks does not trouble novice riders or racegoers. The extraordinary excitement generated by the four camels competing between more traditional horse races on a summer's day in the Leicestershire countryside is more than enough to satisfy everyone.
Joseph's Amazing Camels, as the troupe is known, are the only racing camels in Britain. Growing in popularity, the well-groomed beasts are booked by imaginative race-day organisers to entertain the crowds, and can be seen at up to 15 meetings a year. Racing purely for fun and often in aid of a charity, they are owned and trained by Joseph Fossett and his wife, Rebecca, on their farm in Warwickshire.
Ten years ago, the couple brought seven camels over from the Continent with the intention of training them to race. "I'd seen someone else doing it 20 years ago and decided to give it a try," says Fossett, 49, a member of the oldest circus-owning family in Britain. "We knew camels were not the easiest animals to train, but they are happy when they're working. They like doing things, going to different places. In the circus they run around a ring, but racing camels must be taught to run in a straight line."
While camels can gallop at speeds of up to 60kph on sand surfaces in the UAE, they seem much slower over Garthorpe's lush grass, racing over a furlong in four heats and a final. If they went any faster it would probably cause Fossett more angst than it does already. "They're quick enough," he says breathlessly as he catches hold of the rider-less camel's bridle at the finish. "I think they enjoy it - they wouldn't run as fast as they do if they didn't," adds Rebecca, 45, grabbing another's reins.
Before a race meeting, prospective camel jockeys such as Collins, whose father Chris once finished third in the Grand National - on a horse, not a camel - must assure organisers that they are fit and capable riders. "Although few will have climbed on a camel before, that they can ride a horse is a fair indication that they will be safe at a slightly higher altitude," says the trainer. "I'm not quite sure what happened to poor Edward - he just didn't sit tight enough."
Mishaps are rare but not unheard of. Last autumn one camel slipped when ridden by Peter Scudamore, the former champion jump jockey, in a race at Cheltenham. Happily, the man who rode 1,678 winners in his career was scuffed but unscathed. "It was his fault," says Fossett. "I told him to leave the camel's head alone and let her get her neck out and gallop but he caught hold of her reins and she just fell over."
Two of Fossett's camels are definitely faster than the rest and usually finish in first and second place. Not only does this make for a rather unfair contest, it also perplexes bookmakers as some of the gimlet-eyed betting public find they cannot lose. "To slow them down, I match the heaviest-looking jockeys with the fastest camels," says Fossett. It doesn't always work. When a spare rider was suddenly needed at a recent meeting, the silver-haired trainer, who weighs a hefty 95kg, rode the fastest animal to see if his weight would tell. "I held him up for half a furlong but he just grabbed hold of his bit and tore off in front to win again with ease."
Every camel behaves slightly differently, so Fossett gives jockeys individual riding orders. "I find the harder you are on them, the slower they'll go, and I think the most important aid is your tone of voice," he says. How they pull up at the end of the race is unclear, but the beasts seem to know where the winning post is. "There's always one of our team at the other end just in case," he says. Back at the farm, Fossett calls his camels. The group - a mix of dun, sandy chestnut and white beasts all with shaggy manes - stop grazing, swing their heads around and begin striding purposely towards him across the field. One seems keener than the others. "That's Kazak, he's the youngest," he says. The camel repeatedly rubs his muzzle along the collar of my coat. "He's two years old and feeling pretty hormonal."
Four are Bactrians, with two humps, and three are dromedaries, with one. Four are females, two are geldings and one, Kazak, has yet to be castrated. While the eldest, Veneta, is only nine, camels can live in captivity for as long as 45 years, so Kazak and Veneta, together with Sahara, Gobi, Kokoso, Ruby and the bucking Sophia, should be around for a long time. The Fossetts receive enquiries from prospective camel buyers almost daily. "Although we've home-bred one, we've no plans for more, nor would we consider breeding to sell," says Fossett. "If we did, camels would be everywhere and we wouldn't have a business."
In Britain, camels are covered by the 1976 Dangerous Wild Animal Act, which means they have to be licensed. "They shouldn't be," he argues. "Camels have been working beasts for 4,000 years and are only dodgy in the wrong hands." When discontented, they make a growling noise, a sort of roar not dissimilar to a lion. "They'll growl when we separate them to ride them because they are very herd-minded - they prefer to be together," he says. When happy they make a very high-pitched squeaking noise. "A mother and child also have a keening noise, which I'm not going to attempt to describe," adds his wife.
They are trained every day. "They have to be able to stop, turn and lie down, so must learn to respond to a vocal command. We'll ride them, but also work them from the floor, walking behind them, controlling them with long reins," he says. Although racing is the biggest pull, the Fossetts also hire out their herd for film and TV work, take them into schools, turn up at children's parties, organise treks in the Warwickshire countryside and even three-a-side camel polo tournaments. The camels are also in demand at Christmas when they carry the Three Kings at nativity celebrations.
Until Fossett's father, Dennis, closed the circus in the 1980s when it became unprofitable, the family had been running circuses since the 16th century. At times, as many as five generations had worked together in the show so it was a huge decision to wind up the business. "Father sensed that animal circuses had become a thing of the past - he was right. I don't think we will see them again. Local authorities won't allow dangerous animals on their land and public attitudes have also changed because of the animal rights people," says Fossett, who had joined the family business as an animal trainer in his teens.
"Although my two brothers found other careers there was no pressure on me to carry on. I just loved animals and never wanted anything else," he says. The circus was based on another farm near Stratford-upon-Avon in winter, but he and his parents and grandparents were on the road all summer moving from place to place in painted wagons. With a private tutor for his school work, he had a unique apprenticeship with some of the finest performers in the industry.
"I was born to it. I grew up with lions, tigers and elephants as well as camels, which was fantastic. I had a chimpanzee called Pamela when I was six, so have been involved with animals in close-up since then," he says. He continued his career as a lion tamer working in other circuses. "I was with Chipperfield's Circus in Great Yarmouth when I finally decided to pack up in 1997. My lions went to France. I had to move on, so thought I would try the camels."
Fossett met Rebecca in 1997. With no circus connections, she was beginning an apprenticeship with Dicky Chipperfield, one of the best animal trainers in the world, when Fosset appeared. "I came to see some lions, and we were married six months later," he says, laughing. They now have two children, Daisy, aged 11, and Leo, nine, who are both animal-mad and already proficient camel riders. But can a life with camels be half as colourful as it was with lions and tigers? "It's not less colourful, it's just different because times have changed. I like to see them working, to see their reaction to new places, so going racing is a bit like being on the road again. His wife agrees. "It's a wonderful way to make a living. Camels are amazing. They surprise us every day."