Camels, Zebras And Ostriches, Oh My! Exotic Animal Races Return To Prairie Meadows

Written By Russ Mitchell on July 16, 2021 - Last Updated on July 22, 2022
ostrich racing iowa

A camel, ostrich and zebra walk into a bar. They were low on cash after a night on the town.

“I’m hungry,” the camel with four empty stomachs said. 

“Me too,” said the zebra who was seeing spots after a long night. “But, we’re broke so we’ll have to share a meal.”

The ostrich poked her head out from under the table. She wanted a shrubs-and-snake salad: No.

The animals kept talking, so the server left to give them time to decide.

The camel wanted to ruminate some twigs and stems.

But the zebra thought that was too tough. He wanted grasses instead.

The debate continued, so the server refilled the camel’s water and left again.

After a third stop, the server was running out of patience: “If I have to come back one more time, you’re going to be on the lion’s menu.”

The ostrich saw cooks send out an order of smothered chicken. The table’s tastiest guest glanced out the window to a nearby racetrack. Her eyes got big and she hurriedly proclaimed:

“Let’s just get the horse special.”


It’s safe to say that the exotic entertainment at Prairie Meadows on Sunday will be better than that joke.

And, the arrival of zebras, ostriches and camels at the Altoona racetrack and casino is true enough. As Prairie Meadows puts it: “Things are going to get wild.”

How to watch the camel, zebra and ostrich races

The track apron opens at 3 p.m. Sunday, July 18, for the zebra, ostrich and camel races. Live races start at 4 p.m.

The exotic contestants will run between regularly scheduled horse races at the Des Moines-area racetrack.

  • Camels run after Race 2
  • Zebras run after Race 4
  • Ostriches run after Race 6

The family-friendly event will feature four camels, four zebras and five ostriches.

Adults in attendance can bet on the horses; however, the exotic animal races are just for fun. Live music from Opus Taylor begins at 5:30 p.m.

Hedrick’s Promotions of Nickerson, KS, brings the romping creatures. Joe Hedrick’s team plans to arrive Friday in Altoona to give the animals time to get comfortable ahead of the Sunday races.

Camel, ostrich and zebra racers are B&B residents

Altogether, Hedrick has 70 camels, 40 zebras and 60 ostriches on hand at his bed and breakfast in Kansas. The company rotates its racers for about 12-15 events each year.

Hedrick said racing is a routine task for the trained animals:

“They all have their own their own personalities. We raise them from the time they were babies — all of them. The ostriches, we hatch in the incubators and raise them there on the farm. We don’t try to race them until they’re about four years old. But, we’re around them all the time and working with them.

“Same way with the camels. We raise the baby camels and we use them sometimes in the petting zoos there at the farm for an exhibit. We start putting a little saddle on them when they’re about three years old and we start racing them when they have four years of maturity. Same thing with zebras.”

It takes a staff of about 15 to care for the animals and operate the business.

That count includes a nutritionist and a feed store staff that supplies the oats, soy meal, molasses, Iowa corn and Kansas wheat. The zebras and camels have a diet of about 16% protein. Ostriches are omnivores by nature, so their diet is closer to 18% protein.

Save a horse, ride an ostrich

Jockeys at Prairie Meadows Casino usually ride the ostriches and zebras due to weight requirements. Heavier horse trainers and owners at Prairie Meadows can board camels for the races.

Hedrick said:

“The jockeys just need to hang on, because we train them at home and we use grains and different treats.”

“The animals are a lot like children or athletes. Not everyone is going to race. If they don’t want to run a race, we don’t force them. They’re pretty much on their own.”

Zebras, camels and ostriches all run at a 30 mph clip. Hedrick continued:

“The camels and zebras are easier to work with because they were handled so much when they were little. But the ostriches are easy, too.

“The ostriches are a little different personality than the camels and zebras, but if you come to the track you’ll see that we lead them up to the starting gate. They go in and when the races are over, they come to a stop. The jockeys get off take and them to winner’s circle. People are petting them and taking pictures. They’re very docile.”

Learn about camels, too

The event’s not just a race, according to Hedrick. He hopes families also leave with a greater appreciation for the animals.

For example, he notes that dromedary (single-hump) camels don’t spit:

“If somebody tells you they got spit on by a single-hump camel, they’re just telling you a story because it didn’t happen. They do chew their cud, like a cow. They’re in the bovine family and they regurgitate their hay or grain. If they get really upset, they might slobber that out on you but they don’t spit.

“For zebras, no two are exactly alike. They’re like your fingerprint, they’re all have a different marking. When they’re born and the sun comes up, that baby can run just as fast as their mother can almost. It’s strictly the survival of the fittest. If they didn’t run fast, they’d be the dinner or lunch for an African lion probably.”

In addition to camels, zebras and ostriches, Hedrick Exotic Animal Farm is also home to nearly two dozen types of animals, from an African-crested porcupine to giraffes, from kangaroos to a yak.

Photo by Garry Jones / AP
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Russ Mitchell

Russ Mitchell has been covering news and sports in northwest Iowa since 1997, including 11 years as managing editor for one of the most acclaimed community newspapers in the state. He looks forward to keeping readers up to date on the growing sportsbook industry in Iowa.

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