We have all heard the phrase ‘going to the races’. When we hear this, we assume that it could relate to a few different things- they could be going to the dog races (greyhounds). It could also mean going to the horse races of course. However, what may come as a surprise to you is that this can also refer to another type of racing- camel racing.
The camel has long been considered as a symbol of pride and prosperity of the United Arab Emirates. The camel has been their lifeline- it has been a means of transport, helping the people of the UAE to cross the deserts in the boiling heat without cutting into their water supply. Camels are also a reliable source of food, providing camel meat and also camel milk. Camels were even used as part of a bride’s dowry. Just like the horse has helped the British fight in wars and travel across county, so has the camel been such a faithful companion, and so camel racing is just one more way in which the Emirati’s can honour the history of their country.
So, before we take a look at the tradition of camel racing, what do we know about camels? Well, we know that they have humps- some have one hump, some have two. We know that they have a tendency to spit, so you should keep your distance. We also know that they stand up by straightening their back legs first, and now we know that they race. Let’s take a look at camel racing in the UAE.
How long has camel racing been taking place?
In keeping with the tradition and culture of the country, camel racing has been organized under the patronage of Dubai’s Crown Prince, who is also the Chairman of Dubai Sports Council- His Highness Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum. Camel racing has long since been around, as it has been a part of weddings and festivities since ancient times. Yet, it is only in recent years that it has become a professional sporting event. With the discovery of oil in the 1960s came professional camel racing, and thousands of camel owners from across the UAE and the Middle East join together for the 12-day long event. Camel racing really has taken off as a professional sport. There are over 10,000 camels competing, all of different ages and breeds, and they compete in more than 300 races.
Who rides the camels?
So, who rides the camels? Well, it used to be common practice that child jockeys would race the camels. Children were favoured for their light weight, and sometimes children as young as two years of age would be in the racing seat. However, due to injuries caused by the children falling from the camels, Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan banned the use of children under fifteen as jockeys. This ban took place in the early 2000s. Since then, robotic jockeys have taken the place of the children. These small robots are placed on top of colourful blankets on the camel’s hump. The robots are steered by the operator driving in a car alongside the race track.
DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – APRIL 02: Robotic jockeys control camels during Al Marmoom Heritage Festival at the Al Marmoom Camel Racetrack on April 2, 2015 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The festival promotes the traditional sport of camel racing within the region. (Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images)
How far do they race?
There are three different distances for camels to race. The races are grouped by the age of the camel, and they can run either 4, 5 or 6 kilometres. The top speeds that camels can read is between 30 and 40 kph. Camels can race until they are seven or eight years old, and while they are racing they cannot be used for anything else, they are solely racing animals.
What are the prizes?
The prizes for the winning camel owners are exceptionally lavish. Expect to see winners walking away with luxury watches, millions of dirhams and even luxury cars.
(Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Where can I see camel racing?
The camel racing festival is organized by the Dubai Camel Racing Club. This club is the first of its kind in the emirate. Camel racing usually takes place between October and March. The races can be held in either Al Marmoom Camel Racetrack or Al Lisaili Racetrack. Camel racing is open to the public and is free to watch. There are also market stalls that you can browse if you have seen enough camels for one day.