The crazy and chaotic world of Kerapan Sapi – Indonesian bull racing

The island of Madura sits off the north coast of eastern Java.

It’s dry and empty and even the locals will tell you that not much happens there.

Well, not until the harvest is done and the bull racing season begins.

Known locally as Kerapan Sapi, the bull races were introduced by King Katandar in the 13th Century.

The idea was to use the races as a way to determine the island’s fastest and strongest bulls.

It’s a tradition that continues today.

Between August and October every year, villages across the island hold races to choose their best bulls.

The winners represent them at Kerapan Besar, the Madurese equivalent of the Grand National.

I called by Madura on my big trip around the equator that became my book, Going Around In Circles.

The races I went to were at Ambunten, a tiny village not far from the port of Sumenep.

They were held in a dusty field beside the main road.

There were tobacco fields on one side and the turquoise sea on the other.

A gamelan orchestra provided a discordant soundtrack and a pall of smoke hung over the field from a line of hawkers grilling sate over makeshifts barbecues.

Young children dashed between the legs of the nervous looking cattle.

It was quite the occasion.

The bulls raced in pairs, with a ‘jockey’ – usually a small child – riding what appeared to be a ladder wedged between them.

His sole task, it seemed, was to just hold on.

In the months prior to the races, the best bulls lead quite the pampered life.

They are fed a high energy diet of herbs, raw eggs, honey and beer and they live in dry, clean shelters.

They are decorated with tinsel and flowers.

Some even wear eyeliner.

It is not unknown for more indulgent owners to sing their most prized bull to sleep.

It sounds idyllic. Until it’s not.

This star treatment is performance-based.

Once a bull starts losing it doesn’t take long for him to end up on the dining room table. 

After a series of chaotic heats, it soon came down to the big one.

The race that would determine which bulls would represent Ambunten at Kerapan Besar.

A flag was dropped. The crowd whooped and hollered and a few brave souls chased after them.

One team veered off course and galloped towards the crowd, sending people scattering.

The winning team didn’t stop in time and went crashing through the tobacco plantation. They returned, covered in tobacco leaves to a hero’s welcome.

It was mad, it was crazy, it was chaotic – and probably the most exciting nine seconds of my life.

About Author /

Australian travel writer and podcaster with a funny way of looking at the world.


  • Sonia
    4 years ago Reply

    I was told about bull racing in Indonesia when in Bali, or more precisely Nusa Lembongan.

    I’ve felt very attracted to spending some time travelling in remote areas of otherwise exposed tourist spots. Guess COVID has a different ideas and I’ll have wait for that.

    Awesome post again! I’m your new reader! Was looking exactly for something like that and am glad I found it.

    • Peter Moore
      4 years ago Reply

      Hi Sonia,

      The bull races are quite a spectacle. They’re held all across Madura, but I reckon the ones in the small villages are the best. The whole community comes out and it is quite the occasion.

      And re: travelling to less exposed tourist spots, I highly recommend it. You might not get to see as many world famous ‘sights’ but it is so much easier to meet people and have a more authentic local experience.

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