It’s just after sunrise as two camels hurtle past us at full pelt; the men atop are frantically bouncing up and down with their arms doing a hyperactive version of the funky chicken, while a sparkling white Land Cruiser drives just behind incessantly beeping its horn. Further down the track the riders slow down, dismount and disappear into a babbling throng of camels, cars and khanduras.

It is not a sight most people would expect to see at 6.30am out on the Al Ain Road – partly because most of the city is still asleep, but mainly because the enormous Al Marmoum camel racetrack is one of the UAE’s best kept secrets.

Located 30 minutes from Dubai, at the Al Lisali turning just beyond The Sevens stadium, the country’s largest camel racecourse is relatively unknown to the hordes of tourists that fly into town, and that is just the way the locals like it. Camel racing is as traditional a sport as there is in the UAE, playing a significant part in the country’s heritage harking back to the days where Bedouins would use the camels for transport, currency, milk and occasionally racing against each other, with children jockeying across roughly marked out desert courses.

Today, modern day camel racing has become big business. During the racing season – between October and March – people from as far as Qatar and Saudi join local owners with stables full of camels competing for prize money, which is now given out to the race’s top ten finishers. On an average race day the victor can win around Dhs2,500, but for more important meetings the sum can rise up to Dhs5,000 and include luxury cars such as Range Rovers and FJ Cruisers.

But the prize money is not all that has changed; the sport has undergone some serious modernisation over the past decade. Since 2002, following pressure from human rights groups, child jockeys were replaced by little robotic machines controlled by remote control. Now the owners cruise alongside the track in fleets of 4x4s controlling the robotic jockey while seemingly trying to exhaust their car’s horn.

Mr Al Wahad, a racing official, explains that the men we saw earlier riding the camels were not racing but merely warming them up for the races, set to start at 7.30am.

Although the Dubai Camel Racing Club (DCRC) officially sanctions each race, the schedule for the events can be difficult to find – and it is best to call ahead to confirm.

The track is used most days, with the races run normally between 7am and 9am on Fridays and Saturdays during racing season. The loose schedule on the DCRC’s website informs us that today it’s the turn of the younger camels.

Adult camels can reach speeds of up to 40km/h but, as a rule, the camels under two years old should not be racing as their bones and muscles have not fully developed.

“In the young category, the camels must be between three and four years old to be able to race,” explains Mr Al Wahad who has the unenviable task of overseeing the registration. There is no official documentation for the camels; instead their age is determined by a thorough inspection of the size of their teeth – if a camel passes inspection then a blue stencil is spray-painted onto its neck. “It is simple – no mark, no race,” smiles Mr Al Wahab.

With the race minutes away, dozens of camels – now dressed and draped with multi-coloured robes and fitted with their robotic jockey – are manically ushered towards the start (essentially a net across the track). The buzz of anticipation is as potent as the smell of camel manure as we join the owners jostling in one of the grandstands to get the best view of huge TV screens that broadcast the race.

The start is chaos. As soon as the rope is dropped, the camels spring into life with limbs flying off in every direction. The roar and horns of the accompanying 4x4s drown out the cheers of the crowd and the camels scamper off into the distance to the soundtrack of Arabic commentary booming out of the speakers. A good 15 minutes passes until we catch sight of the leading few camels striding across the finishing line, much to the delight of a few locals in the stands who leap out of their seats and set chase after the camels – half to congratulate them, and half to ensure they don’t run off.

It is hard to shake the feeling that among the chaos and competition there is something refreshing about a sport that doesn’t try nor care to be anything other than what it is. Camel racing is unquestionably local and long may it continue.

Al Marmoum Camel Racetrack, Al Ain Road, Dubai
Tel: (04) 8326526. Taxi: Exit after The Sevens.
Races at 7am and 2pm, free.

This article first appeared in What’s On in January 2013