Think of all the glamour, the maquillage, the frenzied betting and crowds screaming, the graceful galloping of horse races: it’s none of that. Some thousand camels run dozens at a time in back-to-back races around a horseshoe track near five miles long. Owners shadow their entries in crammed (white) SUVs from an internal track, paved for the first time this year. While the driver speeds ahead in what looks from the inside like rush hour in the desert, the owner clicks a remote control that triggers the camel’s whip.
Oh right — they’re ridden by robots.
Handlers need to pull the camels through as the starting gate shoots up, some still losing their way, turning in the wrong direction, and racing back towards home. Others somehow escape the track and, foaming at the mouth, charge unsuspecting bystanders looking through their camera lenses.
Little boxes in hats cling to the speeding camels just behind the (one) hump, spinning whips on command. Hey, it’s better than children. In the middle of the desert 45 kilometers east of Abu Dhabi, camel breeders ditched the primitive (albeit logical) practice of using kid jockeys in favor of their super-modern cameline robocop replacements. Still, the reception is no great sheikhs, and you need to be about within earshot of your camel to be a part of the action.
Obviously, we wanted to be a part of the action.
All it takes is a friendly “can we?” and a hand on the door handle to be invited in to race around with an owner and his driver. Our first hosts were in a consistent second-to-last place and drove in a serious, subdued silence, but after one lap we managed to land seats in the media van.
A Danish reporter recorded the breathless stream of race hype coming from the backseat, as an announcer rattled off names and standings to all of the drivers on their radios. Unfortunately, it seems camels aren’t christened as creatively as are race horses (maybe because their owners don’t drink), and we heard only the names of their handlers.
Local Emiratis race these camels out in the desert, drinking coffee in their cars from paper cups poured by Iranian men wearing traditional garb and daggers, just as they have done for years. When Abu Dhabi struck oil and citizens’ pockets deepened, city dwellers found more things to buy, shinier things to polish, and bigger things to invest in. But in the desert, there is just desert — men whose fathers raised and raced camels continue to raise and race camels, now with just a little more land.
We Americans reached the end of the race, popped into a Capri-Sun, and settled in for another lap.