In the Arabian desert, the camel is highly prized for its endurance in extreme temperatures and its ability to go for days without a drink of water. For centuries, however, it has also been a popular racing animal, able to reach speeds of up to 65 km per hour. The sport is popular across Arabia but also in Pakistan, Mongolia and Australia, home to around 300,000 feral camels originally introduced by the British in the mid 19th century. In the United Arab Emirates, camel racing is big business and a perfect sport for flush young Emiratis whiling away languid days. Top-end races catch net the winner up to one million dirhams (or around GBP 180,000) and the top racing creatures can fetch over half a million pounds.
Until the late 1990s, the preferred jockeys for camel races were small children, some as young as two or three, many of whom often came from South Asia, Afghanistan or Sudan. With a high level of injuries and sustained reports of child abuse in the camps where the child jockeys were housed close to the camel farms, the practice became mired in controversy and was finally banned in the United Arab Emirates in 2002 under the stewardship of Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the first president of the racing federation who also oversaw the construction of a number of professional race tracks.
Ingenuity has come to the rescue in the form of clever contraptions based on adapted power drills that incorporate a remote controlled whip and an intercom system which allows the owner to talk to his camel. Early models were heavy and cumbersome and didn't catch on but the new robots, complete with heads made out of sponge and a metal frame which is strapped to the saddle are now standard, costing around GBP 320. The devices work on rechargeable batteries so running costs, once acquired, are minimal.
As with horse racing, the actual race is relatively brief, usually covering 3.7 miles of dusty track. For owners and spectators, however, there's a unique 'sport' to engage in on the sidelines of the actual race. Turning up in a fleet of expensive SUVs, the owners and a few spectators are able to enjoy the action from the comfort of their air-conditioned cars by driving alongside the running animals on tarmac roads either side of the race track. It is from here, as well, that the owners operate their remote controlled robots, shouting encouragements down their walkie talkies to their camels and giving them a couple of well times smacks on the hindquarters with their wipe.
Andrew Testa hitched a ride with one of the camel owners to witness this ancient sport now being enjoyed with the help of quirky modern innovations.