Farmer's daughter brings new approach to sport of Sheikhs

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The Independent Online
The sight of 20 hump-backed and ungainly beasts clumping through the heat and dust of the Dubai desert is unlikely to induce the next great scramble for exclusive rights to pay-as-you view television coverage.

Yet the ancient Bedouin pastime of camel-racing is now such serious business that a young English scientist has been persuaded to devote her expertise in artificial insemination in animals to the quest for producing the perfect racing camel.

Lulu Skidmore, 33, the daughter of a pig farmer from Suffolk, has established herself in a cavernous laboratory in the desert outside Dubai City. Here, at the behest of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the crown prince of Dubai and the defence minister of the United Arab Emirates, she pairs camels into genetically desirable combinations.

A top racing camel can change hands for up to pounds 1.5m but the money involved does little to inspire the reproductive efforts of the animals themselves.

"The libido of male camels is not great," said Dr Skidmore. "They soon tire if they have to mate several camels in a few days."

Dr Skidmore and her team of 10 assistants get round the problem by diluting the camel semen in a liquid containing nutrients which enables it to be used to inseminate up to five female camels at a time.

Formerly employed at the Newmarket-based Equine Fertility Unit, she came to the attention of the Maktoum family through its interest in English horse-racing, and has lived in Dubai for eight years.

From her desert base, a collection of low-rise buildings and huts alongside a series of high-wire pens in which are housed 100 former racing camels, Dr Skidmore also specialises in embryo transfer. This technique, using surrogate mothers to bear the offspring, is used to overcome the slow gestation period of the camel, which lasts 13 months. "Your top-class female can return to the racetrack and not interrupt her career," explained Dr Skidmore.

There are 20 camel racetracks in the UAE, establishing it as the world capital of camel-racing, although different forms of the sport exist in Kenya, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Though camel-racing dates back thousands of years, the modern version of the sport was developed in the 1970s and is dependent on such modern inventions as the four-wheel drive and the television set for its spectator appeal.

As the camels gallop off into the desert for the 12-mile race, their progress race is filmed from the back of chasing jeeps and relayed back to spectators in the grandstand.

Betting is expressly forbidden, in accordance with Islamic law, but the owner of the first camel past the post is traditionally rewarded with a Mercedes car or a golden sword.

Ian Burrell