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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Dubai's camel marathon: strategy beats speed in longest race with human jockeys

But not all finish as camels throw jockeys from their backs in 25km dash

A pair of brothers have won a Nissan Patrol, a sword and Dh70,000 in the third annual National Day Camel Marathon at Dubai International Endurance City in Saih Al Salam on Sunday morning.

The annual National Day Camel Marathon is a camel race unlike any other because here, strategy beats speed.

At 25km, the camel marathon is the longest camel race with human jockeys in the country.

Now in its third edition, this year’s endurance race was a small group of 42 elite camels and Emirati jockeys who had trained for weeks.

First place went to jockey Ghadeer Al Balooshi, 21, whose camel Mashkoor pushed in the final second to beat his older brother Shafar. Their other brother, Wazair, took seventh place. Ghadeer took the Nissan Patrol and the sword for first place, while his brother took given Dh70,000. The sword will hang in the majlis reception room at the camel farm.

Cash prizes were given to the top 30 participants.

At the regular races in the winter season, robots are used instead of humans. However, this National Day race, organised by the Hamdan bin Mohammed Heritage Centre and Dubai Camel Racing Club, honours tradition and so on the robots are set aside as Emirati men take the reins.

Not everyone finishes. It is a significant distance for these mature camels, most of whom are six or seven years old and normally compete at distances of between eight and 11 kilometres.

The marathon is equally gruelling for riders. Minutes into the race, jockeys begin to fall off their camels, which do not have a graceful gait at any speed.

“Some camels they don’t achieve and some camels finish alone and the rider is not there,” Mohammed Abdullah, the director of corporate support at the Hamdan bin Mohammed Heritage Centre.

At today’s race, stamina trumps strength. These are not the fastest camels in the country but older racers that can handle the distance.

“The key factor here is experience,” said Mr Abdullah. “When we start the race we see lots of camels running fast and it’s like a trick. When others run fast, your camel also wants to runs behind because it wants to compete. Experts hold their camel back.”

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Read more:

Dubai to host first camel marathon for UAE National Day

How heritage sports are helping to maintain Emirati traditions

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Experience has its drawbacks. Seasoned race camels are trained to ignore distractions and consequently they won’t continue running in a straight line if its rider falls off. If a camel crosses the line without its jockey, it does not qualify.

Among the hopefuls lining up on the sand track at dawn was Barzan, a seven-year-old camel belonging to the Emirati lawyer Ahmed Dhahi. While some camels had entire families cheering them on, Barzan’s only fans were Mr Dhahi and his Sudanese trainer, a man who introduced himself as Abu Hasan Kasala but is known on the track as Obama.

Their rival: a camel owned by Yahya Al Malaai, whose camel had won the inaugural competition.

Mr Dhahi owns 120 breeding camels and 30 active racing camels and that is not a modest number, given that race camels can easily fetch prices of Dh120,000. A champion camel can quickly repay its investment in the winter race season when cars and cash prizes are on offer.

Ghadayir Al Buloushi wins first place at the third edition of the National Day Camel Marathon. Reem Mohammed / The National
Ghadayir Al Buloushi wins first place at the third edition of the National Day Camel Marathon. Reem Mohammed / The National

Out of all of his camels, Mr Dhahi selected seven-year-old Barzan, who he had bought two years ago after Barzan won a car.

It was Barzan’s second marathon, a second chance to win the victor’s sword. “Last year I was in Sri Lanka at this time and he came sixth,” said Mr Dhahi.

Mr Dhahi was approached a few weeks by the Sharjah jockey named Imran who wanted a strong bull to race at the marathon.

“He called me and said, ‘I need a camel’.

“I said, ‘Ok, come and ride’.”

As the race begin, camel’s owners followed their dromedaries on a sandy road beside the race track in their 4x4s, shouting greetings to each other as they went.

Mr Kasala pulls out a thermos and poured sugary tea into glass cups. Drinking hot tea from small glass cups is not ideal in a car dune bashing beside a group of 42 camels but Mr Kasala did not spill a drop until he began to pour for his passengers. Meanwhile, Mr Dhahi adjusted set radio to a local station broadcasting the race commentary.

Ahmed Bin Dhahi, communicates with his jockey, at the third edition of the National Day Camel Marathon. Reem Mohammed / The National
Ahmed Bin Dhahi, communicates with his jockey, at the third edition of the National Day Camel Marathon. Reem Mohammed / The National

Within ten minutes, Mr Kasala had finished his tea and lit his first cigarette of the race. Jockeys had begun to fall off their mounts. Barzan stayed near the front pack.

At the 10th kilometre, every camel dropped its speed.

Barzan and his jockey were still going strong behind the front pack, which the radio commentator had begun comparing to planets of a solar system, awe-inspiring bodies locked in orbit together.

At kilometre 20, Barzan had passed Al Malaai’s camel but another threat had become apparent: Al Malaai’s brother. His camel was overtaking them all.

“I think some of the front guys, they will drop back,” said Mr Dhahi.

But after a minute, Barzan slowed.

“Obama, how many in front?” asked Mr Dhahi. “Barzan will come sixth, like last time.”

He paused. “Barzan will retire. This is the last race for him.”

Mr Kalasa picked up his walkie talkie and began to cheer Imran the jockey and Barzan the camel, but it was to little avail. Ahead, the clouds of dust grew thicker and the owners of the front pack began to beep their hours as they approached the final kilometre.

Mr Dhahi sped ahead to watch the jockey Ghadeer Al Balooshi speed past his older brother in the final second of the race. He left Barzan and Imran behind.

They appeared from the dust a few minutes later, behind the first pack but well ahead of the others, in sixth place.

Imran stood on his camel as he rode over the finish line, every inch the champion.

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Camel Technology

Camel racing has humble origins, once practised at weddings and other large gatherings for simple prizes like dates, wizar cloth, a ghutra or a few rupees.

With the advent of oil wealth and the rise of the modern state in the 1970s and 1980s, camel racing developed as a way to promote heritage and strengthen tribal unity with the state in a rapidly-changing society.

Government-sponsored races offered lucrative prizes, like luxury cars, swords and cash as well as prestige.

Often dubbed a heritage sport, the camel racing practiced in the Gulf today is in fact the product of modernity, developing through the continuous adaptation of available technologies.

In the 1980s, televised races and the advent of the video cassette revolutionised the sport as owners could witness the speed of a camel firsthand instead of relying on word of mouth. Breeders opened their wallets and camels took on a new value and social prestige.

Today, the sport continues to develop with biotechnology and social media, with camels being cloned at research centres and traded on Instagram.