Yothin Attano hit the mud hard. It was his third race of the day and the third time he had been thrown. Bruised, bleeding and frustrated, he could only watch as his 3-year-old water buffalo, Rung, dashed riderless toward the finish line. "Damn beast," he muttered as the sweat spilled down his mud-spattered face. For the 25-year-old rice farmer it looked like another hard-luck year at Chonburi, Thailand, home of the world's only water buffalo racing championships—and beauty contest.
It may not surprise you to learn that the water buffalo, the workhorse of farms all across Asia, is not a natural racing animal. Most water buffalo would rather spend their days rolling in mud puddles than running breakneck down a mud track. But on this October day, 159 buffalo from 50 farms tested their speed before 5,000 Thai and foreign spectators who stood through four hours of heats in the steamy downpours of the Southeast Asian monsoon.
The races are the culmination of a daylong buffalo celebration organized every year by the Chonburi city fathers and Thailand's reported top crime boss, Somchai Khunpluem. He didn't show this rainy race day. Instead, he sent his son, Withaya Khunpluem, who is Thailand's deputy minister of industry. After Withaya helped select the winners of the buffalo beauty contest, it was off to the races.
"These races are one way to help preserve the water buffalo," said Chaiyat Huangsri, the day's master of ceremonies. "They're the backbone of the nation and have been very important to our way of life." That may have been true 20 years ago, when Chonburi, 44 miles southeast of Bangkok, was still a sleepy seaside farming community. Today, however, Chonburi is a government-sponsored showcase of industrial estates and assembly plants designed to reel in fast-buck foreign investment. Farmland is disappearing. The traditional life of tilling the soil is giving way to the numbing shifts of the assembly line. In this new economic environment, there is little room for the buffalo. Even Attano uses machinery to reap a living from his modest 25-acre rice farm. He keeps Rung and his other water buffalo, Nual, purely for racing.
It's not hard to make a water buffalo run, Attano says. Just put all his friends where you want him to go, and he'll head right for them. But at the crack of the starter's gun at Chonburi only a few buffalo broke straight for the finish line. Many wove about, seemingly confused, while others refused to move at all.
Though water buffalo racing evokes images of sumo wrestlers doing the hundred-yard dash, the animals are surprisingly swift for creatures that weigh nearly a ton. Most covered the 120-meter, rain-soaked track in about 12 seconds. But for the jockeys it was no joyride. Wearing shorts and armed with just a bamboo riding crop, each rough-riding rice farmer hung on to his beast by means of a rope. The good jockeys got as far back on the buffalo's rumps as possible to avoid the violent bucking.
"It's not quite the rodeo, but it's damn exciting," said Betsy Fontenot, of Beaumont, Texas, watching from the stands and sporting a cowboy hat adorned with ostrich feathers. Many riders were thrown, landing hard in the middle of the stampeding pack. Fast reflexes saved a few from serious injury, if not certain death, as they dodged the hooves of laggard buffalo.
When the mud settled and the heats were done, the winner was the 1,870-pound favorite, Korn. It was his fourth championship in eight years. "I bought him for $880," said his owner, Wa Paopouchong, a 41-year-old sugarcane plantation lord who also had five other buffalo running that day. "I've been offered $3,000, but I'll, never sell him."
Against such competition it's unlikely that Nual or Rung will ever emerge as the Secretariat of the buffalo-racing world and capture the $200 winner's purse for his owner. And Attano says he doesn't really need the eight dollars he makes just for showing up. Nonetheless, he vows he'll be back next year. "I'm a Chonburi man," Attano says, "and this is what Chonburi men do."