'Saluki racing is 90 per cent of my life'

Sheikh Rashid bin Ahmed Al Maktoum owns more than 300 of the dogs that were used by Bedouins as hunting hounds they now race for substantial prize money.

Sweihan, United Arab Emirates, Mar 20, 2013 - A saluki race at the Sweihan camel race track.  ( Jaime Puebla / The National Newspaper )
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As the day draws to a close and the temperature cools, the salukis wait at the start line for the race to begin.

Grooms struggle to contain the dogs as they howl and pull at their lead, ready to run towards the bait - a dead rhim gazelle hanging over the track on a metal contraption attached to an open-top 4x4.

On the side of the track, the judge, seated in the bait-carrying vehicle, raises his hand to signal the start of the race and speeds away before the handlers release the salukis.

Car doors slam and engines rev as the spectators dive into their 4x4s, accelerating at high speed along the side of the track and beeping their horns to encourage the dogs to run faster.

As the salukis chase after the bait, hitting astronomical speeds, the grace and fluidity of their running style is beautiful to watch.

"Look at the white one; he is going at 80kph," shouts Sheikh Rashid bin Ahmed Al Maktoum over the noise of the engine, as he steers his Land Cruiser alongside the racing dogs.

"Last week he was only going at 55kph so look at the difference one week makes."

Sheikh Rashid's dogs are taking part in a training race at the Sweihan camel race track between Abu Dhabi and Al Ain.

A handful of saluki race owners have gathered together to test their younger purebreds against each other over distances ranging from 1.5 kilometres to 2km.

"I am very proud," says Sheikh Rashid later, who owns more than 300 dogs, rubbing the back of the 18-month-old winning white saluki called Battar. "After today, I know he is ready to start racing next season."

One of the world's oldest breeds of dog, the Arabian desert saluki originates from the Middle East region. Used by Bedouins for thousands of years as hunting hounds, salukis would act as companions for the desert dwellers and track down food.

But with the region's rapid development, the need for hunting dogs was lessened, which is how saluki racing emerged as a sport two decades ago.

"It started with a couple of people racing against each other in the desert to see who had the fastest dog and there would be a little bit of prize money. Then little by little, more became interested," says Sheikh Rashid.

Today, saluki racing takes place across the region, commanding big prizes.

In the UAE, races are mainly held at camel racetracks, though there are a couple of dedicated saluki tracks around the country, and there is talk of an international stadium being built in Abu Dhabi.

The racing season runs all year round, bar August, with weekly public races presided over by three judges and each dog having a blood test to ensure there is no doping.

Sponsors host races, putting up the prize pot, which can range from Dh5,000 to more than Dh100,000 in cash or a luxury car.

"For a long time, the prize money was up to Dh50,000 - then suddenly it started to get really crazy and the prices of dogs are also really crazy," says Sheikh Rashid, who adds that young dogs starting out can command between Dh200,000 to Dh400,000.

He has been involved in the sport since he was a young child, racing salukis in the desert with his cousins.

"In this country, you can find a saluki in nearly every house. Salukis are very good at catching rabbits, so kids challenge each other to catch rabbits and compete to see which dog is stronger. Little bit by little bit, they get into gazelles and then racing.

"It is the challenge and glory of winning that drives us and the sport has really gained in popularity. In two to three years it will be as big as camel racing if not more."

By the age of 9, Sheikh Rashid was racing professionally and winning prizes for his collection of dogs.

Today, at the age of 25, he is one of the most successful saluki racers and breeders in the country, competing across the region and internationally as well.

His winnings are substantial. One dog, for example, won him more than Dh5million, which is why when he was offered Dh4.2million to sell it on, he declined.

"Like horses, you can find really good ones for zero money and find really bad ones for all the money in the world. For a top-of-the range saluki that's been proven, you can ask whatever you want," says Sheikh Rashid.

But there is more to the sport than just money. Sheikh Rashid has a deep affection for his Salukis, housing them in air-conditioned kennels with a paddock to exercise in and a 70-metre swimming pool to bathe in.

Of his 300 dogs, only 30 are eligible to race now. The rest are either too young or used for breeding or for beauty contests. But even those that have retired from competitive racing are cared for.

"Saluki racing is 90 per cent of my life," Sheikh Rashid says, constantly petting and stroking the dogs as he talks. "I know the names of all 300 of my dogs and of each one going back five generations.

"What I like is that the more the dogs love you, the harder they run on the day of the race. Training is a big part, but your relationship with your dog is even bigger.

"I believe every dog has a reason to live, and salukis are born to run. If I ever take them away from running or training, I am taking a part of their life away."

In the run up to the training race in Sweihan, the friends have been corresponding by text message and mobile phone to set the time and location.

They begin arriving at 4.30pm, their dogs in the back of the 4x4s that are left running to keep the animals cool.

The grooms take the salukis for a short exercise period before returning them to the cool of the cars.

As more owners arrive, they shake hands and touch noses, swapping notes about training.

Mansoor Sharara, 28, and his brother, Khalid, 23 have come from Sharjah with two of the three dogs they own.

Mansoor has been involved in the sport since 2005, often teaming up with Sheikh Rashid to race their dogs under the same name.

"I had a saluki when I was young and I loved it," says Mansoor, adding that he devotes all his time to the sport. "I know how to train the body to give it stamina, how to give endurance to the muscle and then there is the diet and the supplements - I enjoy all of that.

"I have won many cash prizes and an FJ Cruiser at a race in Liwa. I reinvest most of it into the dogs and keep the rest."

For his brother, Khalid, the sport's enjoyment comes from night-long training sessions in the desert. Racers get together, driving at slow speeds while the dogs trot along beside them.

"There are some people who like going to parties and others, like us, who like to go out into the desert to train dogs," says Khalid. "If you go training at night, you can never be sure what you find. Sometimes it's a hare or a gerbil or some foxes, and that's also a big part of the dog training."

Meeting in the desert at night is more than just a training session.

"It's a social thing," says Sheikh Rashid. "They camp, talk and have fun. Sometimes you get three teams training together. It's a social network, almost like the Facebook of the

saluki world."

Sheikh Rashid introduces another racer, Misalam Al Amari, one of the nation's top trainers and also one of the sport's leading judges.

Al Almari also owns camels, racing and entering them into local beauty contests, and in the past was a keen falconer - only becoming interested in saluki racing in 2006.

"A friends had a Saluki that he took hunting with the falcons and that's how I became addicted to the racing.

"For me the other saluki racer is the enemy until you beat him and then you treat him as your friend.

"But whatever sport you spend your money on, you must make sure it is a good investment."

The owners wait for the sun to cool before the first race will start. Then, events move very fast.

A live rhim gazelle is carried from a 4x4 onto the track in front of a line of salukis on leashes.

It is released, galloping off before the dogs are also unleashed and chase after it.

Cars race alongside the track as the saluki owners assess their dogs' performances, watching their style and technique to see who is ready to compete next season.

Minutes later the rhim gazelle is caught and grounded by one of the dogs. The trainers, all Emirati, are out of their cars in seconds, rescuing the animal from the dog's clutches, but the damage is done and the rhim gazelle needs to be put down.

Each trainer carries a knife for this very purpose to ensure the animal does not experience pain. It is slaughtered quickly, its head almost entirely severed from the body.

The corpse is then hung from a contraption attached to the lead vehicle, allowing it to dangle over the track like a carrot in front of the baying dogs before the next race begins.

"They will all have a bite of the rhim gazelle today because they are training," Sheikh Rashid explains. "In real races, live gazelles are rarely used and, if they are, they are plucked out of harm's way before the dogs reach it."

Later, as night falls, Sheikh Rashid meets his grooms to discuss the dogs' racing styles and muscle tones.

"She needs a little bit more muscle, a little bit," he gesticulates with his fingers to the groom, "and then she will fly."

He inspects the two dogs that outperformed all the other dogs racing that afternoon.

"They have only been training for one month, but the dogs from the others have been training since September," he says, pointing at the other contenders from the afternoon.

"I don't even need to see a dog run to know if it is good; I can see it in the confirmation and the walk. I am the most expensive breeder to buy from, but if you buy from me you will make your money back three times over."