There are few spectators and a small prize pot, but the sport has its fans
Arabian horses begin to break through in UAE's camel-dominated race scene
Everyone knows that the desert town of Madinat Zayed is famous for its beauty camels. In a few years, however, it could be known for its race horses.
As 15,000 beauty camels gathered in the desert south of the town to battle it out for the prized title, a very different crowd was holding its own competition place in the sands to the north.
A handful of UAE-bred Arabian horses raced down a converted camel track at festival’s Al Dhafra Horse Race.
There were only 20 horses in the three races for Dh42,000 in prize money and almost no spectators.
The set of 1,700m, 1,400m and 1,200m races were named in honour of a camel festival, but similar races are held nearly every two weeks by a hopefuls who hope that their city can make a name for itself in horse racing - just as it has in camel beauty.
Owners credit government support and a new international outlook for the growing popularity of horse racing in the Al Dhafra desert towns of Ghayathi and Madinat Zayed.
“Now we can say we are 95 per cent camels and five per cent horses,” said Saif Al Murar, a vet from Medinat Zayed attending the races. “Before we were zero per cent horses.”
Owner Ahmed Al Muhairbi, from Madinat Zayed, nodded in agreement and pointed at the fresh sand beside the race track where his horses trotted before the first race. “You see this sand? All this is new. It cost 900,000. The horse was not here 10 years ago.”
Mr Al Muhairbi won second and third place in the 1,700 metre. His odds were always good - not only is he a well known owner, three of the nine competitors were his.
Racers credit the government, which converted an old camel race track into a horse track in 2010, offers regular races with prize money and, they say, gives every support to horse owners.
“It’s happening now because our government are encouraging this,” said Rashed Al Kindi, 37, an owner. “10 years ago, they didn’t have racing and now they give land for it. When Sheikh Hamdan came seven years ago, the first thing he said was, who has horses?”
Government support is part of the appeal for Mr Al Kindi. “They government says if you have five horses, you can go to the government and get land.”
Mr Al Kindi, a graduate from a university in California, bought his first horse on Sunday for Dh25,000 from a local breeder. Like many, his husbandry experience is limited to camels.
“I have race camels already and here is something new for me. People who have horses are different than people who have camels. You know, bedu, they like camels. Here, people who like horses are graduates.”
Prestige plays a role. The city has become more international and horses are associated with international tastes.
“All these people graduated from the US and the UK and they like horses,” said Mr Al Kindi, 37. “All people like camels because camels are traditional but now, they’ve become international.”
Al Kindi estimates that most horse racers in Madinat Zayed are aged 25 to 45. The camel pageants, by contrast, are filled with young men who have been given camels or, in some cases, taken loans.
“Camels are for 16 or 17 year olds,” he added. “You don’t need to buy camels because your father has hundreds of camels.”
As the sport has taken off, there is only one type of horse they want to buy.
“Everyone here has an Arabian Horse and nobody has a thoroughbred,” said Mr Al Murar. “An Arabian horse because we are Arabian.”
Hamed Al Hameli left camels permanently five years ago to devote himself full time to breeding Arabian horses.
“Actually the bedouin people they know very well about the horses but we don’t know technical things. They’re not like other animals. They get sick easily.”
In the future, he expects racing in Madinat Zayed and Ghayathi could take off.
There are no numbers on the number of horse owners from the area but change, say owners, is certain.
“Everything will change. Just a few days ago, our horses from Madinat Zayed got first in Al Ain and Abu Dhabi.”