Robert Duck walked up to the starting line, placed his pet duck, B.F.D. Express, in front of the 16-foot-long, caged-in racing lane and waited. "On your mark!" said the starter. "Get set!"
The bugle blasted.
Duck, 32, tickled B.F.D. Express' ribs, shoved him over the starting line and watched him waddle down the lane.
This was the final of last August's Great American Duck Race in Deming, N.M. Duck and duck had been training for months, waiting for this very moment—when B.F.D. Express would have the chance to beat out 450 web-footed friends from all over the country for the title of World's Fastest Duck.
Duck, who runs a wholesale jewelry business in Albuquerque, had begun racing his ducks only a year before. "I heard about the races on the radio," he says. "Since my last name is Duck, I kept a couple of ducks in the backyard. I'm of a competitive nature anyway, so I decided to train them for the races." His ducks worked hard for the 1980 race, and though they had only six weeks to get ready, one of them, Lloyd the Duck, finished third out of a field of 186.
In 1981 Duck got together an all-new racing team and installed a more sophisticated training regimen. "My wife, Kathy, and I used to train obedience dogs," says Duck. "It's surprising how that transfers to training ducks. You have to stand back and look at the situation and ask, 'What would make a duck or a dog want to do this?' Once you analyze the problem and break it down, you can develop a program.
"We first tried using food to get the ducks to respond, but a duck doesn't want to eat under these conditions. The primary thing on a duck's mind is that he wants to get away."
This invaluable info formed the basis of Duck's training program. He built a 25-foot run in his backyard. The lane was covered with wire mesh to keep the birds on the right track, and the far end was closed to keep them from escaping during a workout.
The birds would sprint down the lane to get away from Duck, bounce off the closed end and waddle around dazed for a moment. It wasn't long before they figured out it was better to stop before reaching the end. As a result, their times became slower.
Duck overcame this by opening the end of the track so the ducks could run straight out into the backyard. Now each time one of them sprinted to the far end, it would get its freedom for the day. This idea caught on quickly with the fowl, which are domestic ducks and unable to fly. Soon they were running faster than last year's racers.
"The ducks became conditioned to the idea that when they reached the other end, 'That's it,' " says Duck. Because the training track was nine feet longer than regulation, the ducks gained an extra bit of endurance as they dashed to the end of the practice lane.
"There's a trick in letting them go," says Duck. "You have to make the duck uncomfortable. I always tickle their ribs."
In 1980 Duck's ducks proved they could consistently negotiate the course in two seconds in training. But some of them ate too much before the 1980 races, bulked up and, consequently, had slower times. In '81, to keep his racers in trim, Duck stopped leaving corn around and had the ducks chase their meals. "All that extra work going after grasshoppers, worms and flies kept them in condition," he says.
Duck, who had 20 birds last year, including nine babies, even had weight training for his ducks. He filled socks with sand and gravel and tied them to the racers' legs with shoestrings. They clomped around the backyard, building up their legs. But the socks were always getting stuck on rocks and weeds. Afraid of injuries, Duck has stopped that phase of the workouts.
When it came time for the races, Duck had seven ducks he felt were ready. He bought a new pickup truck to transport them and, with his birds, his wife and his two children, Sharon. 7, and Bryce, 4, headed for Deming.
Robert named five of his ducks after relatives: Pauline the Duck, Lloyd the Duck II, Magnificent Molly, Rollin' Nolan and Leapin' Lydia. B.F.D. Express, or Bosque Farms Duck, is named after the town of Bosque Farms where the Ducks live. Donna Duckstein is named for Duck's friend Jay Dinerstein. When the entry blank asked for the names of the dam and sire of Donna Duckstein, Robert wrote in "Sarah and Abraham Duck."
Saturday, Aug. 22, was a big day for the town of Deming. There was a hot-air balloon race that morning and a Beautiful Duckling contest for kids dressed like ducks. There was also a Best Dressed Duck contest for ducks dressed like kids. There were all kinds of eating places and booths, even Yuk Rent-A-Duck for those who didn't bring their own fowl.
Duck was ecstatic when Donna Duckstein won the first heat of the day. "I really felt as though I had some fast ducks and that we could win a few heats," he says, "but as far as winning all the marbles—that was out of the question. There were just too many ducks." In the preliminaries alone, Duck had five ducks that took first and one that finished second. By the end of the first day it was obvious that the training was paying off—to the tune of $50 a heat for the prelims Duck's ducks won.
There was a big Cold Duck celebration that night. B.F.D. and the other ducks weren't allowed to drink, though, it being the night before the big race. There was also a Duck Ball with dancing to country and western music. A Duck Queen contest was held at the ball. "The girls were all dressed up in silly duck costumes," says Duck.
In the opening round of the semifinals on Sunday, his ducks entered four of the eight races and took firsts in all four. In the second round they again won four. "All that made me very happy," says Duck, "but I just took it one race at a time. Winning it all seemed like an elusive dream."
Of the eight ducks in the final, four belonged to Duck. He remembered the time when two of his obedience dogs were involved in a three-way tie for first in a trial. He recalled how bad he felt when the other dog won. He didn't want to feel that way today. He kept a low profile.
The race organizers held a Calcutta just before the last race. "That's something they do in horse racing," says Duck. "They auction off 'ownership' of the ducks to build a pot for the race. The actual ownership isn't transferred, but those who 'buy' the winning duck make money." One of Duck's ducks was auctioned for $650. None of them went for less than $450.
Of his four finalists, Duck decided to take B.F.D. up to the starting line. The other three ducks, Molly, Lydia and Rollin', were raced by Kathy, Duck's brother-in-law, Robert Develice, and Dinerstein.
Duck waited at the starting line. He fidgeted with his yellow baseball cap and wiped dust and feathers from his Daffy Duck T shirt. The ducks from Bosque Farms were ready to roll. He clutched B.F.D. Express with both hands. The duck squirmed and tried to break free. The bugle blared.
Duck dug his fingers into B.F.D.'s ribs and pushed him onto the track. He watched the bird streak toward the finish line. Feathers flew as, beak to beak with Rio Grande Queen, B.F.D. burst across the finish line. Could Duck's duck have won? It was up to the judges who reviewed the videotape. Duck waited anxiously until finally the announcement came: "With a record time of 1.576, the world's fastest duck—B.F.D. Express!!"
Robert went bananas.
"I was so happy," he says, "I wanted to hug B.F.D. all night, but my wife wouldn't let me. You know what they say about having quackers in bed!"
"Mr. Duck? What did you whisper in the duck's ear before the race?" asked a reporter.
"Be a winner or be dinner," said Duck.
None of Duck's ducks wound up on the dinner table. The seven that he entered won 13 heats. B.F.D. Express collected $1,500.
Word about the races got around fast. Duck didn't expect it. At 4:30 the next morning he received a call from a Boston radio station wanting to do a phone interview.
"Is your name really Duck?" he was asked.
"Yes," said Robert. "It's Robert W. Duck, and the W. doesn't stand for Waddle—it's Wayne."
The calls continued to pour in from as far away as eastern Canada. Robert appeared on local TV and radio. He heard that word of the races had even reached Europe.
With all this hoopla, Duck expects the 1982 races to draw a bigger field of ducks. So he's going to begin training earlier. He says he's going to work with different breeds to see which have the most potential.
"I might not take this quite so seriously if it was just for fun," says Robert, "but, my goodness, $2,000 is a lot of money."
Small wonder that Duck says, "We're anxiously awaiting the 1982 race and the thrill of victory and the agony of webbed feet."