This past Saturday’s Kentucky Derby--like its cousins, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes--is a ridiculous human enterprise. That isn’t novel commentary; the Derby is a longstanding mecca for horse racing and sports fans alike. But let’s not undersell the ridiculousness: the Kentucky Derby is a one-day, temporary Las Vegas that features fancy hats, port-a-potties, and a near-complete suspension of societal standards. More remarkably, it entices people to voluntarily travel to Louisville.
However, if you’re looking for an event that’s even crazier, yet still oval-based, I recommend going to Dubai for--I kid you not--camel racing. Like most of the city, the race is awesome and completely unnecessary.
A little background for those who know nothing about Dubai (I didn't know anything about it before I traveled there, so don't feel bad): Dubai is one of seven bodies (or Emirates) making up the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and it’s the most populous city in the UAE. Unlike, say, New York, which has always been a bustling hub, Dubai is a bit of a late bloomer. Since the ‘60s, its wealth has exploded, due in parts to the discovery of oil and, more notably, its growth as a link between the western and eastern worlds. Given the UAE’s historical insulation from the instability that threatens much of region, Dubai is now regarded as a haven for western businesses looking to reach the other part of the globe. From 1975 to 2008, its GDP grew by a factor of 11, making it the fastest growing economy in the world.
Long story short, this is a desert with a buttload of money (see Khalifa, Burj) and, at least for the well-to-do local residents, plenty of leisure time. Given the oppressive heat stretching across much of the year, intramural kickball leagues aren’t too realistic--any outdoor hobby has to be passive. Think lounging on the beach. Think lounging on a second beach. Think watching camels on the track.
Having been there just once, I can’t speak to the standard Dubai camel-race experience, but my time at the track differed greatly from my experience stateside. So if you ever find yourself in the area and missing the ponies, consider this your cheat sheet. Or maybe just a fair warning.
First, the hours of operation are a bit different than what you have at a Triple Crown race. Due to the heat (highs over 110 degrees in the summer), the races have to take place outside of prime viewing hours--we’re talking, like, 7:45 AM on a Thursday. So get some Turkish coffee or the inexplicably-popular-in-the-UAE Nescafe, and find your seat in the grandstand and specifically there, because, well, there’s no viewing infield. Dubai, contrary to popular belief, does allow for alcohol consumption in specific areas known as “free” zones--typically hotels--so as not to scare off international travelers. It’s unclear to me whether the track at the Al Marmoum Dubai Camel Racing Club (where I was) is a free zone; I’m making a very confident guess that it was not.
Regardless, the bigger reason there isn’t an infield is that the racetrack is massive. While American racetracks are typically a mile-long loop (the Derby at Churchill Downs consists of 1.25 laps on the track), the standard race for Dubai camels is five miles, completed all in one single loop. Said another way, that’d be a really long port-a-potty run--which, if you were paying attention, you’d already be able to guess isn’t a thing here.
The longer distance reflects the physiological differences between horses and camels: horses are powerful runners and better sprinters, while camels are built more like marathoners. (It’s worth noting that Dubai also has the world’s highest-purse horse race, the Dubai World Cup, in January each year. Like I said, the city has money.) Somewhat surprisingly, the camel and horse are pretty similar in terms of top speeds (excluding the asthmatic Joe Camel), but the main disparity is in their carrying weight--camels are much lighter than horses, which leads to problems when you consider the jockey situation.
Historically, camel races had employed young children as jockeys, until the race directors received a report from the Yeah, That’s Actually Not Chill Commission. Since the early aughts, these races have used robot jockeys, which, indeed, are little robotic boxes dressed up in jockey silks and perched on the camels. More importantly, they have remote-controlled arms that can whip the camel to induce faster speeds. See below; I posit that there’s no form of animal cruelty that’s more adorable.
But now you’re asking, "Okay, then who controls the robots? Is it like a 2001: A Space Odyssey situation?"
Well, first of all, I think you missed some key plot points there and maybe watched a whole different movie entirely. Still, you’re correct--these robots aren’t autonomous; the (human) trainers handle remote controls. They can press a button to send the appropriate signals throughout the race.
Remember, though, this track is larger than some unidentified townships. The trainers can’t just remain in the grandstand for the duration and expect their signals to get transmitted to the robot jockeys. Which means, well, the trainers also have to go around the track, in something presumably faster than a camel. Something like an SUV.
Yes, there are actually two tracks--the standard, bounded track familiar to any fan of horse racing, and a second, interior track on which the Range Rovers hum alongside their corresponding camel, ready to signal their robot jockey at a moment’s notice. It is basically a horse race with pace cars, and also mid-game coaching and, why the hell not, courtside seats for the owners. After being appropriately exhausted by the five miles, the heat, and their robot’s beseeching, the camels cross the line in visibly disgusting shape. Their mouths--and, in extreme cases, their necks, and the camel equivalent of their thighs--are coated with foam.
What’s the point of all this? It’s a valid question. When I went, there was a set of us, twenty or so, milling about the finish line, and a handful more in the grandstand--sparse attendance for a race with well over a dozen camels. (From cursory research, it seems that camel racing is more conducive to TV viewing, rather than in-person attendance.) If we had all laid down ambitious superfectas, maybe the financial hit to the club wouldn’t have been dramatic, but gambling isn’t permitted in Dubai. James Harrison be damned, every racing camel’s owner has to receive a roughly similar prize. Ultimately, the greatest value of the camels is intangible--the pride they give their owner.
Comedian John Mulaney--who is hilarious, and if you haven’t listened to his “Salt and Pepper Diner” already, go do so--has a great bit about how Donald Trump isn’t a rich man, but rather like a hobo’s conception of a rich person. In Mulaney’s words: “I’m gonna put up tall buildings with my name on them, and I’ll have fine golden hair.” While Trump, the presumptive 2016 Republican Presidential nominee and general search-engine optimizer, lives out this strange fetish daily, perhaps the best opportunity for Americans to have such an experience is during horse-racing season, when they can dress ostentatiously, get blitzed, and throw away their savings with wanton disregard.
The greatest display of individual wealth I’ve seen was at that racetrack in Dubai, though. Here’s a sport that doesn’t really attract viewers, occurs at strange hours, and requires incredible engineering and equipment (robot jockeys, SUV escorts, etc.) to run smoothly. And still, the races are happening, one five-mile jaunt after another.
It’s emblematic, though, of a city that possesses money but lacks the typical outlets of expression. When it comes to 900-meter skyscrapers, manmade islands, or inexplicable camel races, it seems that the question of “why not?” in Dubai is purely rhetorical.
Lucas Hubbard is a writer who is embroiled in a dispute with Crooked Scoreboard over his Dubai expense reports. You should follow him on Twitter.