Cheers for the Saudi camel race

On the last turn it was Al Harab out front and all alone. As the crowd rose to cheer, the young jockey continued to flail his stick against his mount's backside, driving him toward the end. Then, after crossing into glory, 11-year-old Solaiman Obeid jumped down from his camel, bounded up the stairs of the royal pavilion, and came face to face with the King of Saudi Arabia.

King Fahd presented the seemingly unawed young boy with $10,000, a gold dagger, and the keys to a 20,000-gallon water tanker. Al Harab had to settle for 1,000 bags of fodder for his 35-minute, 12-mile run.

And so it went during the King's Camel Races, held earlier this month at the Janadriyeh Race Track just outside Saudi Arabia's capital city.

The races became an annual event nine years ago under the late King Faisal, who wanted to bring the monarchy and the people together for an occasion symbolic of the country's heritage, according to Abdullah al-Bassam, manager of the Equestrian Club, a co-sponsor with the National Guard.

''For centuries the Bedouin have been racing their camels and horses at informal events, but with the rapid modernization of Saudi Arabia King Faisal foresaw a time when perhaps it would end,'' said Mr. Bassam. ''This race guarantees that it (the tradition) will continue.''

The race is primarily a Bedouin affair. Craggy-faced nomads - National Guard reserves - in well-worn robes and Arab headdresses lined both sides of the mile-long entrance road, clutching their single-shot, bolt-action rifles. The Guard traditionally lines the route the King takes on special occasions.

Meanwhile, boy jockeys, sons of Bedouins, and their trainers were busy prepping their camels, which are scruffy and ornery-looking even on the best of days. Red numbers were painted on their necks for the race.

As the entrants filed out onto the track, fans scrambled for seats in the small public viewing stand. Next-door the royal family began filtering into the royal pavilion with its Persian carpets and plush chairs. Joining King Fahd were his brothers Prince Abdullah and Prince Sultan, second and third in line for the throne. United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Zayed was a special guest of the King.

Once the King and senior princes arrived, security tightened considerably. Throngs of policemen in green-denim uniforms blanketed the spectator and track areas.

There were 586 camels (most between four and six years old) entered in the opening race. Of Sudanese breeding, they are larger and faster than the Arabian camels raced in the afternoon. The race is broadcast live across the kingdom and is also replayed in the evening. The royal pavilion is fitted with a live television monitor.

The pack started out on the far side of the looped track, a distance requiring binoculars to identify the racers. Some of the boys rode bareback while others used leather saddles or blankets; some sat directly atop the hump while others chose to ride more toward the animal's backside. All the jockeys used stick-whips and shouts and whoops to motivate their mounts.

On the second lap a number of camels began to tire or lose interest and dropped out. One, No. 246, plopped down in front of the pavilion, snorting and foaming at the mouth. The jockey lashed and cursed at the animal, but it refused to budge. Three race stewards pushed from behind in an attempt to get it going, but to no avail.

Between races the spectators and guardsmen retreated to tents for Saudi-style tailgate parties - lamb, rice, and fruit followed by naps and afternoon tea. In one such setting Khaled al-Tmammy, the public relations assistant for the Guard, was asked if there was any gambling during the event.

''Absolutely forbidden!'' he replied.

The second race, also a 12-mile run, was more hotly contested. These were the plodders trained for long-distance riding, and the 700-plus camels in this event stayed closely bunched throughout. King Fahd and his entourage chose a new vantage point for watching the race - a customized bus that followed the leaders around the track.

Ahmed Rahman, 12, brought Dabiaan home first in the afternoon race just ahead of Al-Hasan and Rabha to claim the same kind of prizes Solaiman Obeid had won earlier.

An inquiry into who kept what of the bounty was answered when the announcer said the winning owner was Prince Muhammad ibn Saud. Prince Mohammad, it turned out, also owned the first three finishers in the morning race. ''Most of the top camels belong to men of means, so the boys (jockeys) normally get to keep everything,'' said a spectator.

After the race, King Fahd led his group in the early evening prayer. Down on the track spectators once again mixed with the jockeys and their mounts. Enterprising photographers with instant cameras did a brisk business posing rider and camel at $3 a shot. And to the cheers of his admirers, Ahmad Rahman and his father drove their new water tanker off into the sunset.

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