Screengrab from an AFPTV video shows racing camels entering a 120-metre swimming pool at the Tharb camel hospital in Qatar
Screengrab from an AFPTV video shows racing camels entering a 120-metre swimming pool at the Tharb camel hospital in Qatar © Victoria Baux - AFP/File
Screengrab from an AFPTV video shows racing camels entering a 120-metre swimming pool at the Tharb camel hospital in Qatar
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David Harding, AFP
Last updated: January 1, 1970

Qatar's prized racing camels bred for success

Deep in the Qatari desert, Musharif spends his afternoons swimming in a large pool that doubles as a jacuzzi, just one of the perks of being a racing camel.

"It's for his muscles, it's good for the speed," shouts one of Musharif's handlers pointing at the water as the calm three-year-old animal is led by a rope along the length of the pool at Tharb camel hospital.

The pool stands next to the hospital, in what looks like a huge agricultural shed with slipways in and out of the water.

The hospital is the only such facility in Qatar.

Situated almost as far west as it is possible to go in Qatar, the hospital is around an hour's drive and a world away from the ultra-modern capital, Doha.

It is found long after the city's skyscrapers have vanished from sight and Doha's sprawling suburbs give way to desert, and only then with some good map-reading skills.

The only clue to its existence are the increasing number of pens filled with resting camels dotted along the dusty highway close to the hospital.

But there is a reason for its remoteness -- it is not only a hospital, but also a breeding centre for camels through embryo transfer and artificial insemination and it needs to be isolated to protect its valuable "crops".

"You want a centre like this to be far enough yet accessible to the potential users," said Ahmed Tibary, a professor of veterinary medicine and a consultant at Tharb.

"Far enough because the intent of breeding and producing by embryo transfer, you have to have a little bit of isolation.

"Because eventually this is an institution that will house the top-level camels, so if you are developing embryo transfers you want the top racing camels or the top genetics isolated so it's protected."

In a region where camel racing is big business, Tharb's work is increasingly important, and the first camels bred at the centre are already racing in Qatar.

Tibary admitted that research into breeding camels had "lagged behind" similar work with other animals, but no longer.

"I think it’s the future just like we have seen in other species," he said.

Artificial breeding means owners of camels being sent to stud can command increasingly high prices.

The current big star in the sport is a six-year-old known as "Al-Jazeera", who would be "priceless" at stud, agree camel owners gathered at the hub for camel racing in Qatar -- the Al-Shahaniya track.

"He has more fans than (football’s) Messi," jokes another.

- Fame, rewards ... and culture -

Professional camel racing started in 1972 in Qatar and the season usually runs from September through to around March.

More than 5,000 locals attend and there are some 22,000 camels raced in Qatar and more than 55,000 across the Gulf.

Camels usually start racing around the age of two and generally go into stud at around six years old.

Races are usually held over a distance of four kilometres (2.5 miles), though for older animals that can reach a maximum of eight kilometres.

The races themselves are exuberant occasions and not for the faint-hearted.

Qataris, usually in Land Cruisers, thunder alongside the sand track just a few feet (metre or two) away from their camels, honking horns and shouting for their animals to run faster.

Mixed in with the owners' vehicles are fans driving along to get close to the action.

It's noisy, frenetic and crashes are common.

Sitting on top of the camels are tiny robot jockeys, which can be remotely-controlled to whip the racers.

In Qatar, there are three big races each season, with valuable prizes such as $200,000 Mercedes Maybach cars.

"If you win this competition... then you will be very famous, your camel will be very famous," Qatari camel owner Salem al-Marri told AFP.

Eighty per cent of the camels he races are from breeding, Marri said: "I'm not lucky in buying, I'm lucky in breeding."

Like many sports though big rewards have brought problems, in this case doping fears in recent years.

Now, all camels are registered online through an iTunes app, chipped and receive a blood test four days before every race.

Marri says it's not just the big prizes which make the sport popular but also how it connects Qataris with their traditions.

"Camel racing, the camel in general, is very important to the country, especially for the culture," he said.

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