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Europe’s first camel races delights crowd, upends jockeys

August 18, 1997

BERLIN (AP) _ Billed as Europe’s first camel races, the Sheik Zayed Cup was more of a sideshow than a competition among the hump-backed contestants, some of which were more interested in running in circles or eating than crossing the finish line Sunday.

About 40,000 Germans were on hand at a harness-racing track on the outskirts of Berlin, where a pack of 12 camels bolted from the starting line then disappeared around a curve.

Moments later, one camel suddenly popped back around _ ignoring the embarrassed German jockey clinging desperately to its single hump _ and charged back across the starting line. Along the way, the camel passed a rival running in circles.

Despite the antics, the race appeared to be a hit for ``the camel connection,″ a group of businessmen and government officials from the United Arab Emirates and Germany _ including German economics minister Guenter Rexrodt _ seeking to promote business contacts.

``It’s about promoting friendship between the two countries _ nothing else,″ said Salem Alsaaedi, who was among the United Arab Emirates delegation besieged by German businessmen in a VIP lounge.

Camel-racing in Arab countries long ago shed its origins as a form of entertainment for Bedouins at wedding parties and was legalized as a sport 42 years ago. Now the best-known jockeys and camels have large followings. But the races on Sunday didn’t seem likely to win the desert sport many new admirers in Germany.

``The camels are too slow,″ spectator Andreas Schneider said. ``Maybe they could liven up things between events with a few cockfights.″

The Arabs took the event seriously enough that they had invited 20 young German women to the United Arab Emirates Republic for several weeks to learn how to ride the long-necked animal.

That didn’t stop many of the young jockeys flying off the humps and unceremoniously landing on their rears.

``How does it feel? It hurts like heck,″ 18-year-old Heidi Gilbredt said.

``They’re just German, not Arabs,″ Alsaaedi said. ``Our jockeys can ride the camels standing up.″

The camels didn’t care if anybody’s reputation was on the line.

In the fourth race, one contestant approached the finish line without a rival in sight then decided to stop for lunch.

Nothing could persuade Saba the camel to ramble the few feet to the finish line until she had munched her fill of the grassy track.

``Being hard doesn’t work _ camels are easily insulted,″ said 23-year-old jockey Simone Vetters. ``Saba is sweet, but during a race, she likes to duck in the bushes and lie down.

Juliane Schubart, who finished a distant last on Misk in the opening race, was just as indulgent with her camel.

``Disappointed?″ she said. ``No, I’m just happy that we even reached the finish line.″

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