Saturday, January 25, 2014

Off to the (camel) races!

In a recent post I wrote about a few things I was glad I brought or did in advance of coming here. The hands-down best thing I did is to have an amazing and adventurous friend willing to spend her Christmas break in the Middle East with me! It would have been a pretty painful holiday if not for Andrea's visit. As it was, we celebrated both here and virtually back in the States via Skype and we also had the chance to explore my new home. This is a very belated post about one of the awesome things we did.

at the gate
The Dubai Camel Racing Club has a track about 40 minutes outside of the city on the Dubai- Al Ain Road (the road I take to work every day). December to March they hold races on Fridays. We went to the early morning runs (we got there around 7:30) of the younger but not youngest camels. They run different lengths based on their age. An Emirati co-worker read the online schedule for me- it's in Arabic- I think she said they were running the 8km track- what is that, like 4-5 miles? It's a big track! We came at it from behind the grandstand after driving along between camel... not sure what to call them... more than pens, less than farms, not stables... camel outfits? Anyhow, there's a clubhouse for the members and VIP seating both inside and out but peons like us just wandered into the grandstand's general seating area. People were largely crowded around TV screens as the camels were on the far side of the track but pretty soon we could see them coming. Actually, we didn't see the camels coming so much as we could see the sun glinting off the fleet of SUVs that circle the track with the camels. I think owner and remote-control-jockey operators get to ride inside the track along with a daring guy who perches in a chair on top of a big truck and mans the camera that provides the
and they're off!
feed on the grandstand TV monitors. General spectators and anyone else who's up for it ride on the outside of the racetrack it seems. An announcer was calling the race in Arabic but it had the same sound and rhythms as any horse race.

We were the only females at the races for the first half an hour or so (more came later- but only tourists, I didn't see any local women though it's possible- not likely- that they were somewhere in the clubhouse.) There were maybe 6-10 people milling around like us who clearly had nothing to do with the camel care but most people there were camel owners and caretakers and they were caught up in the races. We wandered around and discovered we could stand at the starting gate, right down next to the track. They run about 15-20 camels at once. The gate doesn't have individual slots for each camel like at a horse race. Instead they're all lined up along one pole, side by side and when the pole lifts, the tether that was keeping them at the gate drops away and they're off with their gawky lopes! They kind of sway and some don't run especially straight out of the gate but it's exciting being right up beside them. I just read that camels can run about 40mph (65kmph) in short sprints and can sustain 25mph (40kmph) speeds for an hour or more. If I'd had a better car for it, we might've tried driving alongside on the outer track- next time!

robot jockeys
They used to use kids as jockeys but they put an end to that practice and went hi-tech. There are little robot boxes that sit on the hump. They have a radio controlled arm with a crop that whirls around urging the camels to go faster! We watched some of the camels lounging about pre-race and being fitted with their robot jockeys. Andrea asked a guy testing his out if she could lift one to see how heavy they are and the report is that those little robots are dense. The camel blankets (we also stopped at a weird strip mall full of camel ropes and blankets and food and vets along with giant cooking pots and little else) have a hole for the hump top! The camels have some really expressive faces and remarkable eyelashes. Their front and back knees bend in opposite directions so when they sit, it looks a bit like a card table collapsing. 

The camel races were a great taste of local culture! Come visit in season and I'll take you!

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