Camels replace horses as Sydney races suffer

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With Australia in the grip of equine flu and horseracing banned as a precaution in Sydney, tracks are losing money and punters are getting restless. Last night, however, race fans were given a different kind of spectacle as half a dozen camels cantered around the city's premier harness track.

The event – the first of four camel races planned at Harold Park Paceway – was expected to attract a crowd of 10,000, even though betting on the beasts was not permitted. "People haven't been out and about and they're just wanting to get out and see something race," said Robert Vine, the food and beverage manager at Harold Park. "I think it's probably the novelty, something not many people have ever seen in Sydney before."

Harness races are a popular fixture in Sydney's sporting calendar. But Harold Park, like other tracks across New South Wales, is suffering heavy losses because of the indefinite ban on racing. Australia's first equine flu outbreak has seen meetings halted across the nation, horse movements banned and thousands of infected animals quarantined.

Racing has resumed in three states under strict controls but not in New South Wales, the worst-hit state, where the spring racing carnival has been cancelled. Last night, Harold Park spectators had to make do with the likes of Speed Hump, Sand King and Sir Hump-a-lot, as well as Shorty Smith, a five-times world camel-racing champion.

The sport is popular in the Outback but is rarely seen in the big cities. Alice Springs stages a camel meeting each winter and mounts can be unpredictable. Sometimes they run backwards, or stop a few feet from the finish line and refuse to move.

Unfortunately for punters, camel-racing is not recognised by Australia's premier betting organisation, the TAB. So no money changed hands at Harold Park yesterday.

Animal liberation activists had threatened to protest at the arena. "Camels have to be transported to this event and they are frightened once on the track," said one. "It is showing no respect to the animals whatsoever."

Camels were introduced to Australia from Afghanistan in the early 1800s to help build railway and telegraph lines across the deserts. They were turned loose after being made redundant by the advent of the motor car. About 500,000 wild camels now roam the interior.