The ancient Arabian tradition of camel racing has taken a modern twist — with robot jockeys

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Aaron Schachter: And now this. That, it goes without saying, was the sound of a camel or two. Camels are prized possessions on the Arabian peninsula and camel racing is an ancient pastime there. New York Times reporter Sam Borden recently caught a few races while in the United Arab Emirates and he saw firsthand a unique development in the evolution of camel racing.


Sam Borden: It’s been a part of the Arabian culture for centuries. In the last 30-40 years, it became significantly more popular as formalized sport in the United Arab Emirates. They built race tracks with grandstands and a lot of the things you might see at a horseracing track in America. But in the beginning, they were using, often times, children from other countries like Pakistan or Sudan, as young as even two or three years old, to be the jockeys on the camels because they were so light. Obviously, from a human rights perspective it was terrible and about 10 years ago the United Arab Emirates banned children from being used as jockeys finally and they developed a robot. They’re using these tiny robots that are fashioned from pretty much anything you can find in a hardware store--a drill, a car remote entry clicker, and a long piece of plastic to be a whip, and the whole thing ends up costing a couple hundred dollars and it rides atop the camel; they put it in silks so that it looks like a jockey but it’s just basically some stuff from your garage sending this camel around the track.


Schachter: We’re using this term robot--I’m not sure we’d call it a robot. It’s a drill essentially, right? Drills on top of camels and it’s just kind of a drill with the front spinning around and whacking the camel?


Borden: Yeah. I think the thing that makes people want to use the robot label is that they also attach a walkie talkie to it so that it has a voice, in that the owner of each camel will ride along the side of the track in a car and can talk to the camel. They make a sound that they camel can recognize so that it will be inspired to run faster, so they have the button from the clicker to do the whip and also a walkie talkie for talking to the camel. So yeah, it’s not a robot like C3PO or anything, but it has that mechanical look to it.


Schachter: Give us a little taste, if you would, of what the trainers sound like.


Borden: I was sort of thinking they might actually speak, like “Go faster!” But as it turns out, it was more like a sound, like clicking, that sort of thing, and they said that it was the same sound they make when they’re walking the camel to get food or waking it up; it’s just like a comfort sound so that they know someone they know is nearby, even if they’re actually not.


Schachter: I think in the West we often think of camels, if we ever think of camels, as slightly comical, the whole hump thing and all that. But this is really serious business. So, paint a picture for us of what the camel races are like.


Borden: At the track, there are not a lot of fans usually. It’s usually just people that are involved in the sport itself--trainers or owners. But the ratings on television are quite high. When you talk about sports in that part of the world, especially in Dubai or Qatar, where they’ve really been making a concerted effort over the past few years to become more of a sporting destination for Western sports--Qatar is hosting the World Cup in 2022--a lot of is based around the idea that they want outsiders to come and be a part of their sporting culture. Camel racing is, in a lot of ways, one of the few that are still only for the emiratis, only for the people in the Arabian region. It’s not a sport where you see a lot of expat owners in terms of running camels.


Schachter: What did you think about it when seeing it? Did you get caught up in it at all?


Borden: I wasn’t there on a day when it was the Kentucky Derby, you know what I mean? I was there on a day when it was a day of regular racing. So, if you’ve ever gone to a horse track on a regular day of racing, it’s a low key race-after-race experience and there’s not a big crowd. That’s what this was. The biggest difference was that the entire thing happened between 7AM and 9AM because it gets so hot there that their races are generally scheduled very earlier, like right after sunrise.


Schachter: Finally, another difference is what happens to the top three finishers. There’s a really nice tradition that you talk about. Can you explain that?


Borden: We were walking past the finish area and all of a sudden I saw this guy mixing water with powder. His whole white robe was covered in yellow stains and I was like “What is happening here?” They would lead the camels over right as soon as they finished the race and came across the finish line and then slap this saffron glaze all over their head and neck. I was told that it’s a very sacred spice in Arabian culture and a way to honor the camel. Every race, these camels were led over and this guy would mix up this vat of orange and yellow goop and slap it all over the camel’s neck and head and upper body. They would lead them away and they’d go back to eat and go to sleep.


Schachter: Sam Borden, sports reporter for the New York Times. Not yet a convert to camel racing. Sam, thank you so much.


Borden: Yeah, I can’t say that I’m going to watch it on TV every night or anything. But sports is so representative of culture in a lot of ways, certainly American culture, that it was interesting to see what way it represents Arabian culture.


Schachter: Sam, thanks a lot.


Borden: Thanks very much for having me.