AL WATHBAH, United Arab Emirates -- Not until the spring of 2014 did I realize that all the horse races I had ever watched had suffered from a peculiar limitation.
They had featured only one race at a time.
They had boasted horses going around a track, enough to make the heart gyrate sometimes; but they had failed to provide any concurrent race on the inside of the track, unless you count the race of mint julep through the human bloodstream, which isn't very telegenic.
I had come to see track infields as mere bastions of debauchery with the occasional fistfight, and that was just at the Preakness. But now as I watch the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, I might even gaze longingly at the vast, empty Belmont infield and whisper a strange question:
Where are the 4x4s?
Camel racing dates back at least to the 7th century, but I had never attended a camel race before 2014. Through various media reports such as that of HBO's "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel," I had learned the camel racers traditionally used South Asian child jockeys for their helpful lightness, and who wants to go watch that? Through a turn of incompetent Googling, I had not learned that because of human rights concerns (duh) and subsequent 21st-century laws, this practice had given way to a marvelous creation: the robot jockey.
Across the last 10 years, a Swiss robot company has developed the robot jockey, which an owner or trainer can control remotely. These robot jockeys are sort of cute, even if they're surprisingly tiny and seem to have zero personality whatsoever. So at noon on a day that would turn out unforgettable, I packed my SPF 50 and set out excitedly from coastal Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital, for my robot-jockeyed camel-race debut.
About 45 minutes inland on the highway, amid the great sand, the taxi arrived at Al Wathbah. Both a website and my former employer, The National, had promised camel races on these premises. Nobody was there, save for a few workers at a smallish building beside the apparent office. I found shade and waited in about as much stillness as I had ever known, the big sun reflecting off the bright sand. I doubted that any bustling event could sprout lickety-split from this. I fretted. Carefully I deduced that, indeed, there was a humongous track, and that it yawned out so far across the sand that you barely could see the backstretch.
Here in the gaudy-car capital of the planet (with Dubai just an hour away), a gaudy car or two began to appear and park. With the cars -- and their air conditioning -- running, the men would sit there, texting. Then came a 4x4 from Dubai Media and a truck from Abu Dhabi Media. My hope was building. About 90 minutes after my arrival, the privately-owned 4x4s streamed in en masse. The men got out in their everyday-yet-elegant white robes (called "dishdashes," which I've long envied). They greeted each other in large clusters with their outstanding tradition of rubbing noses together. It felt like being let into some sort of half-secret, a cloistered culture not steeped in record-keeping or publicity, yet brimming with bigwigs. Every single person among the few hundred on the premises seemed to be, you know, male. And holy-moly-Grove-of-Mississippi, there came a little camel-race tailgate. Male humans got out of one SUV, and they opened the back, and they got out a table, and they produced a large silver dispenser for what turned out to be a lovely tea.
Do you know what this proved?
This proved that male humans are capable of doing such a thing.
As I stood -- the lone blond on the grounds, talking with some photographers -- camels had materialized and ambled down the road into the track. A human-and-camel bustle had formed. And a 25-ish-year-old man in a dishdash walked up to our conversation, asked a photographer to translate Arabic to English and said something our interpreter translated as: "He wants to be your friend."
I smiled hugely, shook Mohammed's hand and said, "Good to meet you."
I had no idea.
Pretty soon, with a four-race card afoot, my first-ever camel race commenced. I watched the start, the robots quirkily atop the saddles, among the strangest-looking things ever for an American. Then they went around the bend and disappeared into the horizon of the five-mile track. From the start area, then, you trudge over to the sand to wait for the ending, and here they came, with their speeds of 35 mph in some cases, crossing the wire and slowing as if remote-controlled, because they are.
I noticed that a few 4x4s had followed them around the inside of the track.
Soon everybody prepared for what would be the final race -- the fourth race, a sheikhs' race, with some prominent citizens among the connections of the nine camels entered. I prepared to repeat my camel-racing tradition of watching the start, walking over and waiting for the finish, when one of the glimmering white vehicles whisked by, braked and stopped.
The driver's window went down. Mohammed's enviably handsome face appeared, and he invited me in. One of his brothers sat on the passenger side, another in the back seat with me. What ensued has a chance to end up as a top-50 experience of my lifetime.
None of us could talk to each other, really, but we stammered out a few words here and there as we sat and waited, enough that I gleaned they wanted me to show them around New York sometime. We had tea. It was tasty.
The gates opened, the camels started, Mohammed moved his right sandal to the accelerator, and here we went along the inside. Only this time, the mass of 4x4s had swelled -- and this time, I got to be amid it, and that's an entirely different matter from seeing it from the outside. As the camels sought the win on the track with their languid strides, the connections in the 4x4s sought the best vantage point in a manner you could describe as feverish. Going along hardened dirt at 30 mph, maybe 40 at times, they surged and braked, steered and braked, vied and braked, often coming with inches of each other, maybe even an inch.
If you did not know better, you would think that this country had a whole lot of oil under the ground, and that it enjoyed somewhat a flush existence, and that the principals in this 4x4 race seemed to have some sort of awareness that if they dented or crashed their vehicle, they could just go get another one. And if you did know better, as I did, you would think that this country had a whole lot of oil under the ground, and that it enjoyed somewhat a flush existence, and that the principals in this 4x4 race seemed to have some sort of awareness that if they dented or crashed their vehicle, they could just go get another one.
It was exotic enough for an American to gaze over and watch camels run at that clip. It doubled the exotica to sit amid the 4x4s and the men jockeying for position -- sometimes four or five wide, some of them controlling the robots from within the cars, all of which avoided the soft sand over on the left. Mohammed drove with a mischievous wink and a veteran's deftness, looking right, braking, looking left, braking, looking back at me to smile at the madness of it while still driving, and braking. Suddenly, after we'd gone almost all the way around the expanse with such frenetic and guttural thrill that I barely knew how far we'd gone, Mohammed went for his coup de grace.
It was, as they say, awesome.
Seeking a prime vista for the stretch run, he ratcheted up his rambunctiousness. He ducked and darted all the way out leftward toward the peril, the soft sand. He went out where I had seen no inner-track 4x4 venture. He gunned it through the soft sand, the frontier, and as he angled back right with his gathering speed, he had overtaken a great horde of autos, passing them all -- 28 by my count as I watch my video -- all surpassed in a big, breathtaking mass.
Then, just as we had assumed a lead and witnessed the wire crossing, we stopped. Doors flung open. Everybody else stopped. Doors flung open. Here came another spectacle. Maybe a hundred of these white robes rushed over to congratulate the connections of the winner, a camel named Allwarah belonging to H.H. Sheikh Khalifa bin Sultan Al Nahyan. They made a whole big blob of camel-minded camaraderie.
Within five minutes, everyone had left and the track had quieted again. Hordes of camels and their handlers had streamed out here and there and across the road for late-afternoon walks, and one blond, American former resident of Kentucky had an exhilarating new concept of the infield.