By Maryjean Wall
Woody Allen called them flying rats. Many others call them Thoroughbreds of the Sky, and for good reason. Surprising similarities exist between thoroughbred racing and pigeon racing, including the names of champion racers.
Shergar is alive and well, flapping fast wings to race through the furlongs of the friendly skies. Secretariat, American Pharoah, Pharlap, Nijinsky, and Justify all fly the skies. So did Man o’ War. Just don’t look up when they’re passing through.
They earn silver cups. They earn money. They have pedigrees and their training regimens are not unlike those put to race horses. One difference is the skies aren’t always friendly: a major enemy to pigeons is hawks, which might swoop in and snatch them before they reach the finish line. Imagine if that were the case with horses on their way around the track.
Otherwise, whether with thoroughbreds or pigeons, the race is to the swiftest. Both are timed electronically. For pigeons there is not one finish line but many. Released from a central starting point, they fly to their home lofts where an electronic chip times them as they cross the finish line and enter the loft. The fastest is the winner. Honesty is expected and respected when the lofts report their times.
“It’s called the poor man’s horse racing,” said David Stephenson, owner with his wife, Angie, of Kastle Loft in Lexington, Kentucky. “You keep your pigeons in your yard or your attic. You don’t need a horse farm.”
Certainly, pigeon keepers give another meaning entirely to urban lofts.
Pigeon racers more likely are joking when they call this a poor man’s sport. Birds have reached $1 million at auctions. Yes, you can buy pigeons at auction, the same way you can purchase thoroughbred race horses at Keeneland, Saratoga, or Newmarket.
Even Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al Maktoum, owner of the global Shadwell breeding and racing operation, was heavily into the pigeon racing sport. He formerly kept a full-time pigeon trainer and wildlife overseer at his Lexington horse farm. That man was Bob Zerkle, who is now retired.
Back to Shergar. Horse racing fans recall him as the 1981 Epsom Derby winner by a record 10 lengths. He was retired to stud at the Aga Khan’s horse farm in County Kildare, Ireland, syndicated for 10 million pounds. Two years later armed kidnappers took Shergar from the farm. They demanded a ransom but the horse was never seen again. No arrests ever were made; the belief is strong that the IRA was responsible for Shergar’s kidnapping. The intention was said to raise money for arms but as the stories go, the horse injured himself and had to be shot.
The winged Shergar’s owner, Paul Macaloney of Stirling, Scotland, explained to usracing.com/news via Facebook why he named his top quality bird after the champion horse: “Yeah, mate, I have always appreciated top quality horses and their race records, so when I get a champion I like to name them after the greats.”
Back in Kentucky horse country, Stephenson said from his urban Kastle Loft that he is in the process of importing a pigeon daughter of another horse-named bird, Denman, to beef up his breeding program. Next year he hopes to import an offspring of Shergar from Macaloney Pigeons.
Stephenson manufactures and sells natural health supplements he invented for birds under the name of Kastle Pigeon. He has customers in 13 countries. He sounds like a horse trainer, talking about nutrition being equally as important as proper breeding and training are for racing pigeons.
The best birds make their way through the levels to the top races. The Kentucky Derby of pigeon racing is the South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race in February. Given the time zone differences, serious pigeon fanciers in the United States stay up all night to stream the event.
American Pharoah, born in the United States and flown to South African on a plane when he was a chick a few months old, is expected to fly in this event for his final race, before retirement to stud.
Don’t expect Woody Allen to show up at this pigeon derby, hyperventilating and trying to exterminate a stray pigeon as he did in Stardust Memories. Shergar, Secretariat, Nijinsky, and a flock of fancy birds would laugh at his lines and poop on his face.
Remember how it went? “They’re rats with wings,” Allen was crying out in alarm, waving the fire extinguisher like he was spraying bullets. For a recap, see:
So, don’t confuse these birds with something living under a bridge or on top of a wire, mate. These are the real item, the Thoroughbreds of the Sky.
Maryjean Wall is the former turf writer for The Lexington Herald-Leader. She retired from that publication following a career that spanned four decades and included three Eclipse Awards and an AP Sports Editors Award. She holds a Ph.D. in U. S. History, has taught history at University of Kentucky, and continues to write about horse racing as a free-lancer. She has been published in Sports Illustrated, Wall Street Journal, Forbes Life, Cincinnati, and Keeneland, among other publications. She has authored two books focused on horses and racing: How Kentucky Became Southern: a Tale of Outlaws, Horse Thieves, Gamblers, and Breeders; also, Madam Belle: Sex, Money, and Influence in a Southern Brothel. When she is not writing, she is photographing, always pursuing the creative muse.