I know nothing about camel racing, but am very keen to become acquainted with the basics of the sport. I was invited to a camel race meet at the Janadryiah Festival and excited to have a chance to learn more.
Camels are bred for different purposes, showing, travel, meat, milk and racing. The Arabs are as obsessive about their blood lines as the British are about their horse breeding. (Although the Arabs are equally keen on horses.) In a short period of time I have learnt a few basic facts. Arabian camels are dromedaries, they have one hump, and are well adapted for hot desert conditions. They were domesticated on the Arabian peninsula about 5,000 years ago. They come in different colours from Black through Red to beige then white, which often denotes their purpose. Racing Camels are female and almost always pale beige or white.
There were two races on the card for us to watch. The meeting was sponsored by the Saudi Military, and so there were some bigwigs in uniform sitting in VIP seats by the winning post. The stand is divided into different categories much like a british race course, with the Royal Box, Club enclosure, Tattersals and Silver Ring however you can only tell this by the type of seats. The Club enclosure being plushly upholstered but The Silver ring equivalent is hard plastic. I missed the colourful umbrellas, shouts and Tic Tac of the bookies, but there is no legal gambling here. Although I wonder how many private books are kept? Apparently there is a sweepstake event, where one person wins a big prize. We were ushered to the club seats and offered Arabic coffee and dates. It seems to be a private event.
Unfortunately there was no race card to glean information from about the camels, trainers or jockeys, I discovered by word of mouth that the first race was 9 km and that around 50 camels were in the race. The start of the race was in the far distance. It was impossible to see to the back of the course, its white rails disappearing into the distance. Binoculars would have been helpful. After waiting for a short time we saw a dust cloud on the horizon, snaking through the course. Camels can go at about 45mph, but I think some at least consider speed to be optional. The race lasts much longer than a horse race, a few camels decide not to finish the race and went purposefully in the opposite direction. The jockeys are very thin, most look Somalian, but they are not children. They do not wear racing silks and infact a variety of head gear is worn including bob the builder hats and cycle hats, and scarfs none of which seem to fit properly.
There are catchers who are dressed in smart green and white track suits to catch the camels at the end of the race. Unfortunately the winning camel is too fast for the catchers and heads off into the sunset, but that does not stop its owner from collecting the prize. Despite the slightly “Point to Point” feel of the event the prizes are really good, top rated trucks. Some of the losing camels come past the post 15 minutes later at a steady walk despite the liberal use of voices and sticks.
The second race is for young camels (although I am not sure what age that might be) . It is obviously a “blue ribbon” event as there are over hundred entries in the race and it is over 11km. Some of the camels are wearing bra’s to protect them, and I guess they might have calves. The bras do look odd though.
I tried to get more information from some elderly arabs who looked as though they knew a thing or two about this game. It was difficult to find anyone to translate for me and I am still almost as ignorant as I was before the race. I would like to find out how to spot a winning camel before I leave Saudi Arabia and maybe even ride one.