Shelby's Dubai Diary
Robot jockeys and sprinting SUVs bring camel racing, the sport of sheikhs, into the 21st century
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Put it on your bucket list. Time honored and often referred to as "the sport of sheikhs," camel racing in Dubai is one of the wackiest sports I've ever seen.
Forget the grace of speeding thoroughbreds coursing in unison down the track. Think instead of an unruly herd of knobby-legged creatures, mounted by robots, and not always inclined to travel in the right direction.
Our early-morning outing to the Al Marmoun Camel Racetrack with Arabian Adventures brought great photo opportunities, more than a few laughs and sheer enjoyment. Only a short drive from downtown Dubai, the race course is a modern, sophisticated operation with beautiful grandstands and modern starting gate with a platform for viewing directly above the camels. But before we took our places trackside, several among our travel writer group ventured into the lumbering throng of camels and their handlers.
The colorful robots, wearing the camel's racing silks, look like tiny monkeys straddled atop the beasts.
Hundreds of camels, draped against the early morning chill in colorful blankets, lounged on the open sands or ambled through the crush toward their place in line for the races. Their keepers, wearing turbans and robes of all description, were as colorful as the dromedaries. To our surprise, the handlers were as blasé about our photography as the camels. In fact, in many cases they smiled approvingly. Something you won't find when trying to photograph the Dubai citizenry.
In 2002, the sheikhdom outlawed the use of children (child trafficking victims from India) as jockeys, replacing them with robots. The colorful robots, wearing the camel's racing silks, look like tiny monkeys straddled atop the beasts. Their effective whips are remote controlled by the trainers who ride along side the race track in a parade of white SUVs, horns blowing, urging on their humpback steeds to go faster. It's a wild mix of modern technology and ancient sport.
On our day at the races, the camels were not all so enthused about the direction of the run. As the metal gate holding back the camels lifted, the only signal of the start, most of the camels headed down the track while a handful of others drifted to the right and some even turned around heading back towards the starting gate. Handlers ran on the track shouted and waved their arms while owners in adjacent SUVs blew their horns and shouted as they kept pace with the camels. It was a delightful chaotic picture that can be seen in the video below.
The races go on for several hours but an early arrival guarantees the colorful tableau of hundreds of camels and their handlers. Top speed for camels approaches 11 miles an hour and the length of the course, which can go as long as five miles, depends on the age of the camels.
A visit to the camel races means bringing your own water and supplies. There are no kiosks for food and drink and the restroom facilities are basic, as in bring your own toilet paper.