Thursday, January 22, 2009

Humping It

Like people, some camels have it better than others.

The Dubai Camel Hospital opened in 1990 and is owned by HH Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Deputy Ruler of Dubai, who has a strong interest in camel racing. The hospital cares for 3,000 camels belonging to the Maktoum family and their friends and relatives. It is equipped with x-ray and ultrasound equipment, and operating tables.

Camel racing is a big deal there.

Camel racing has always been a Bedouin pastime, but over the last 30 years or so it has become a hugely popular event. A new television station, Dubai Racing Channel, dedicated to camel, horse and auto racing, has recently started broadcasting. "Camel racing is not only a sport; it is something that we have grown up," says Abdul-Rahman Amin, the channel commentator. "Before, we used it to celebrate at weddings or if we had good news. Now camel racing is similar to horse racing. There are strict rules and regulations".

The girls are the stars, and reap the rewards.

Females run faster than males, and at the optimum age of five years, they can run 8km (5 miles) the longest track distance, in 12 and a half minutes - a speed of 40 km/h (25 mph). Race camels retire at 11 years old and then good performing females are used for breeding. Careful planning goes into choosing a mate to produce the best possible racer.

There are notable differences from the Kentucky Derby.

Unlike horse racing, there is no betting and also no rider. To keep the camels sprinting, an electronic robot is attached to their hump wielding a rotating stick, and owners drive alongside in 4x4s hitting their horns and shouting, leaving the stands empty.