Programmed not to get the hump even if they lose…

Camel racing is one of those regional sports that seems to genuinely spark the collective ex-pat imagination. And we’d argue that it’s not just down to the thought of these glorious, knobbly-kneed, unlikely animal athletes thundering down (seriously these things can get up to speeds of around 65kph) a desert track towards a photo finish. ‘Alice, wins’ the tannoy in your mind’s eye blasts ‘wins by a toe’.

We think it probably also has a lot to do with that often retold ‘pub fact’ that these racing ships of the desert are now almost exclusively skippered by robot jockeys.

Just jockeying

Camel racing has been around as a sport in the Middle East since the seventh century, but the UAE outlawed the use of human jockeys for camel racing, back in 2002 — leaving a gap in the employment market, just the right shape for pint-sized automatons.

And if you’ve been wondering what they look like, you’re not alone. It’s something we’ve been curious enough to spend multiple shower thoughts considering, never curious enough to find out… Until now.

With Dubai being a city that is an ambassador for the world of future tech, you’d be forgiven for conjuring mental images of human-like time travelling cyborgs or sophisticated wireframe monkey sculptures. But the Ex Machina reality, is a little more pragmatic.

Robots in disguise

@whatsondubaiCamel racing has been around for centuries, but back in 2002 the UAE outlawed human jockeys. Now it’s all run by robots ##desert ##dubai ##mydubai ##4yp♬ Stromae Alors on Danse – ᴍᴇɢᴜᴍɪ & ᴋʏᴏ ?

Although clever in concept, the jockeys are pretty basic in format. The anatomy often comprises of a metal A-frame, a cordless power drill that’s attached to a (we’re informed painless) whip, a small mannequin noggin and racing silks (in team colours) for decoration. More like Wall-E than the T-1000 and unlikely to be enslaving the human race any time soon.

The jockeys are operated at distance via a remote control. The owner of the shop that we visited explained to us, that the budget models frequently use a repurposed car alarm remote. The same type of ones you walk around mall carparks with, smashing the buttons, trying to find the tell-tale light flashes that will illuminate where you parked your car.

Camel owners often follow their humped steads around the track in SUVs, many of the big racing sites even have separate cordoned off lanes for this exact practice.

Where can you watch camel racing in the UAE?

The camel racing season runs from September to April and there are several camel racing tracks throughout the country.

Prizes in the races can range from a few hundred dirhams to hundreds of thousands. And these days, it’s not uncommon for purebread racing camels to sell for millions of dirhams.

The largest camel racing track is probably Al Marmoom Camel Racing Track, close to the Al Ain Road on the way out to Oman. Races tend to start early in the morning (around 7am) avoiding the midday sun.

Abu Dhabi also has a sizeable camel racing circuit in Al Wathba; there’s one in Ras Al Khaimah and another in Sharjah.

Images: Getty/What’s On