I knew I was too involved when I got a frantic call from Gustavo. I needed to hear the truth about the race, he said. Things had gotten out of hand. Now there were threats. People might sue. The syndicate from Arizona was pissed. So was the crew from Colorado and the team from Wales, not to mention the Germans, in their matching jackets and rented BMWs. Hundreds of thousands in bets and prize money on the line, and now one accusation after another.
How did it come to this? All these men arguing over a bunch of birds. And not just any birds. Pigeons.
But that's getting ahead of the story. Better to rewind to when I first heard about the Vegas Classic, the biggest pigeon race in the U.S., a 300-mile airborne sprint for hundreds of Columba livia. The source was a shady friend of a friend who went on about international gamblers obsessed with these tiny, molting Secretariats.
I was intrigued. Who were these people? Why did they do it? And what was so wrong with horses, dogs and long-limbed athletes that they preferred to wager on creatures best known for loosing their stool upon statues of civic leaders?
January 28, 2008
In pursuit of answers, I boarded a November flight for that great, blinking metropolis in the desert.
It's three days until the Classic, and the racers—the pigeon owners, that is, not the birds—are arriving with the tourists and the wannabe strippers and the already-soused conventioneers at McCarran airport. They come dressed in shirts bearing team names like DOUBLE T, DUTCH BOYS, TEAM SYLT 2000, FLUTAZCO. They're here for the race on Monday, and before that the bonding and, of course, the blackjack tables.
I've been calling around, getting familiar. It is not hard to get racers to talk. More often it is harder to get them to stop. There is a point in a sport's evolution at which participants no longer need to do their own public relations. Pigeon racing is not at that point. Pigeon racing couldn't find that point on a map with a fleet of GPS satellites. Rather, having a conversation with an avid racer is akin to going to check out a progressive church and walking in the door to find that, uh-oh, it's just you and the preacher.
"You'll be wanting your own birds by the end of the weekend," racers tell me repeatedly.
Why? Their pitch goes something like this: You cannot comprehend, until that moment, the thrill of witnessing the finish of a race. The birds have flown through crosswinds, past hawks and over power lines, all to return to their home lofts. Experience this once, and you're hooked. Next thing you know your backyard is sprouting boxy metal lofts and your roof is spackled green with pigeon poop and you're cooing at 100 beasts who (you start to believe) coo right back and then, because to succeed one has to invest, you forget that vacation to Maui and buy a prize breeding bird for $25,000—hell, a real star bird for $200,000 if the missus will let you, because the kids can go to state schools, right?—and you're studying at the feet of the legends in Belgium and flying to the big showdown in South Africa and, of course, to the Classic in Vegas. Then on race day you'll get those sour tickles in your belly, and damn if you won't feel like getting down on your knees and praying, because your pigeon can do it, but the little bastard needs some help. And you'll hear the call BIIIRRRDSSS! and see the first fluttering shapes, see your fluttering shape, and you'll exult. Halle-frickin-lujah!
The high is undeniable, I'm told. It is addictive.
On the taxi ride to the hotel I tell my driver, a guy in his 20s with dreadlocks, why I am in town.
"They race pigeons? For real?"
"Man, everybody knows pigeons are just rats with wings. Who wants to race them?"
"Same people who will pay 200 grand for a top breeding bird."
"Two hundred grand? Damn." The cabbie pauses, thinks for a moment. "Why not just jack one off the side of the street and sell it then?"
If only it were that simple.
Staging the Classic is like simultaneously operating a petting zoo, a sports book and an international convention. I check in mid-morning with Ed Sittner, the race's impresario. "Should be a good wind but not a blowhome," he says of the forecast. I have no idea what this means, but I deduce that we're gonna have a race and it's gonna be a good one. Sittner is a friendly 61-year-old who made his money in construction. Picture Ed McMahon, but give him a camo ball cap and an inexhaustible supply of anecdotes that start off about a variety of things (real estate, being neighborly, killing mountain lions) but always end up being about the same thing (Sittner's general invincibility). Sittner founded the Classic seven years ago and has been racing pigeons for 30. He lodges as many as a thousand birds on his five acres in the dusty nowhereland of South Vegas. Being at Sittner's compound, surrounded by thick concrete walls beyond which lie vast tracts of undeveloped land, is like walking into some postapocalyptic future in which he who hoards the most birds holds the most power.
The sport (if we may generously call it that) of pigeon racing has been in the U.S. for more than a century and has followed a basic structure: Man acquires birds, attempts to placate neighbors, joins local club, trains birds to return to backyard or rooftop lofts and then, once a week, races birds, with all of them released at a common starting point 50 or 100 miles away. Because club fliers are spread out in any city, however, the pigeons follow slightly different routes home, so winners are anointed based on average speed.
The Vegas Classic, though, is what is known as a "one-loft" race, which means all the birds are trained at and raced to one location. This format is also, depending on whom you ask, either the only true test or one big boondoggle. Sittner explains the process: Last April he and his girlfriend, a 45-year-old of inexhaustible cheer named Debbie Powers, began receiving boxes of birds—a month or so old, before they've imprinted to a home loft—sent by express mail from owners around the globe. Over the next seven months the couple trained the pigeons to their loft; like absentee parents, the birds' owners won't even see their charges again until race weekend. To acclimate the birds, Powers led them on a series of progressively longer flights—first around the yard, then two miles, then five, then 10—as if they were tiny, head-bobbing marathoners. Each bird receives the same treatment, which is important because, as with any activity involving stacks of cash, cheating is a concern.
Supposedly, one-loft races reward the best breeders. They're also the only way for global peers to compete: A dedicated flier can enter a half dozen events a year, from Denver to the Netherlands. "A lot of the great trainers are chagrined at the amount of money involved," says Jim Jenner, maker of Secrets of Champions, a set of DVDs not about champion birds (as one might reasonably surmise) but champion handlers of birds (which tells you who gets the credit in this sport). "The one-loft race is very exciting, but is it really indicative of the texture of this ancient hobby?" Jenner has a point, but many of the racers in Vegas don't give a pigeon dropping about texture, unless it's the cross-matting on a Ben Franklin.
There are plenty to be earned. The top finishers in Vegas will spend the remainder of their days rutting, producing Classic-certified offspring worth up to nearly $10,000. Thus Sittner's lofts are like smelly, poop-encrusted vaults. He ushers me in, but it is an exception—I am the first visitor since the birds arrived seven months ago. "If you're a pigeon man, you got pigeon s--- or droppings on your shoes," he explains. "Well, if you bring a strange disease in there, it could run through the loft." I, it goes without saying, am not a pigeon man.
Outside of Sittner's loft office there sits an unopened box containing an electronic clock that works like a supermarket checkout counter. When a bird walks over its sensors—bing!—its ankle tag registers on the computer. Since even the best racers can't tell one bird from another at 40 feet, if the clock were to malfunction, it would be the equivalent of a photo finish without a photo. Sittner is confident that his clock, just tested at the factory in Germany, is ready.
He shouldn't be.
It is 10 a.m., and a man in a cowboy hat has just offered me a Coors Light. When I decline, he misinterprets my response. "Bud Light then?" he asks.We are at the countermark (essentially pregame introductions for the 422 pigeons) in front of Sittner's seven lofts, which are spread out in an L shape behind his house. Tall and metallic, with a set of holes to which the birds will return, they look like a small, orderly trailer park. Hundreds of racers loiter nearby on metal bleachers or under the covered concrete grandstand. There are old men in hats that read SURE BET and urban cowboys with big belt buckles and creased, leathery types whose shirt pockets bulge with tooth-marked pencils. This event transcends class, though, so there are also expensively loafered accountants and Polo-shirted bankers driving Bentleys and Escalades. There's even a touch of sports pseudocelebrity. Among the fanciers (as pigeon people are known) are Carl Johnson, a 58-year-old former New Orleans Saints offensive lineman, and 49-year-old PGA Tour veteran Jay Don Blake.
The action centers on Sittner, who stands at a folding table, box of birds at his elbow, calling out the pigeons for inspection. Like game-show contestants—Sius Family Loft, GRM 1436, come on down!—the owners approach. There is much squinting of eyes, caressing of feathers and muttering, then each bird is loaded onto a trailer. As an outsider positioned near the table, I am eyed warily, as it's common for competitors to harm opposing birds by "handling" them too forcefully, as if they were avocados at the Stop & Shop.
The father-and-son team of Bob and Mike French approaches. "This one's a little light," Mike says. He holds a pigeon gently in one hand, as one might cradle a grenade; he strokes the bird, feeling its breast and fanning its wings. Mike, 24, is something of a racing anomaly in that he's both young and socially adept. Blond and baby-faced, he favors Spy sunglasses, stiff-brimmed ball caps and baggy jeans; he could be hitting on your daughter at any mall in America. "Most boys reach a certain age and—bang!—they learn about girls and they're done racing," his father tells me. "Now Mike got his share, mind you, but those girls had to know that he was into the birds." Mike shrugs it off. "People think of pigeons as dirty birds that live in trees," he says. "But that's like comparing a racehorse to a workhorse."
This brings up an important point. Racers often compare their sport to horse racing, but that's not quite right. Release a bunch of horses, and you wouldn't have a race but a roundup. (Thus the popular pigeon joke: "The hardest part is getting the saddle on the damn things.") Not only can pigeons return home from thousands of miles—a phenomenon scientists don't totally understand but believe involves the earth's magnetic field and know is due to years of selective breeding—but they can also do it at 55 mph (70 or more with a tailwind), and they can go for days without sleep. Their bodies are essentially O2 conversion machines, constructed with hollow bones and richly oxygenated blood, and their oversized breast muscles account for one third of their body weight. They are the Charles Barkleys of the natural world: unassuming and bottom-heavy yet surprisingly athletic. It's no surprise that they've been employed as messengers by empires (Roman) and armies (the U.S. during World War II).
Soon enough, word gets out that I am from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED—and by "word gets out" I mean that Sittner announces it on the microphone and has everyone give me a round of applause. I am then approached by a man in a Hawaiian shirt. Fortyish, he has a thick black mustache and carries a cane, though he doesn't appear to rely on it much. He introduces himself as Gustavo Rodriguez, and it becomes clear he is not a man to be trifled with. He speaks in a conspiratorial tone and emphasizes his points by sketching in the dirt with his cane while saying, "Do you understand?" He tells me, among other things, that he has done "hundreds of thousands of experiments on birds," that he has made "a major discovery that will change science" and that one of the other racers "is a filthy crook." Later he pulls me aside while holding a bird and says, "This one is going to be in the top position." Then he adds, in a whisper, "If this prediction does not come true, you do not need to write anything about me."
Amazingly, Rodriguez is not one of the Classic favorites. Rather, the odds are on the traditional powers, some of whom have entered up to 30 birds, no small investment at $500 a pop. The racers advise me on the unofficial rules of the sport, a list that could go something like this:
1) Don't name your birds. You'll get attached, and then what will you do when they don't return from a training toss?
2) Keep your wife away from the loft. Unless she wants to help, in which case sign 'er up!
3) Avoid talking to reporters about culling. "The one question you shouldn't ask anyone here," says Bob French, speaking low, "is what they do with the birds they don't keep in the loft." Two words: squab dinner!
I am riding in the backseat of a Ford Excursion with Cecil Ward, a veteran pigeon hauler, and his friend Dave Wooten as we trace the route of the race, 300 miles north to Snow Water Lake. As we pass the asphalt dystopia of Las Vegas Motor Speedway and head out into plains of scrub and cacti, the two men try to explain what it's like to be a pigeon. Despite appearances, these are smart birds: They'll choose the side of a hill without a crosswind, catch thermals and, depending on air currents, either rise up to 1,500 feet or skim just above the ground. Hawks and peregrine falcons are among the few predators fast enough to catch them. Wires are even more deadly. The first pigeon in a group may see a power line and scoot over, but eventually one will cut it too close and break a wing. Anything that throws a shiver through the earth's magnetic field—a solar storm, a sunspot—can untrack the pigeons, as can an earthquake. This can result in a "smash," the term for when birds mysteriously disappear.
A less common but more costly problem is theft. In Florida, Dave tells me, someone nabbed half a million dollars' worth of pigeons from a loft. And in Taiwan and Japan thieves string up giant nets to capture birds, a problem so prevalent that race organizers won't disclose the route until after the event has begun.
As we pass ridges dotted with Joshua trees, it strikes me that the irony of this race is that it functions backward. Creatures are released in a pristine mountain setting and make like mad back to a civilization that could not be more artificial, where they voluntarily reenter captivity.
A FEW HOURS later I do more or less the same thing. Back in Vegas, I meet up with a dozen fliers at a casino bar. The Bud Lights flow and, soon enough, so do all things heartfelt and candid.
"The most amazing feeling is when that bird comes in and it drops its wings like an F-16. Look, I'm getting goose bumps right now."
"Steroids are a problem, especially in Europe. Juice up a bird or hit it with cortisone, and that thing will fly through a frickin' wall."
"You can't buy a win. Not like horse racing, where the A-rabs can buy up the best horses."
I also hear tales, some taller than others. Of races in Japan and Taiwan in which the wealthy are pigeon-crazy and winners can earn $3 million. Of South Africa, land of liberal quarantine laws and host of the Million Dollar Race, which attracts upward of 5,000 entries. Of how the sport has declined from 40,000 racers in the U.S. after World War II to only 15,000. (Blame Super Mario and his ilk.) Of the time when Mike Tyson, the most famous fancier of all, showed up to oppose restrictions on pigeon ownership at a Phoenix city council meeting, protesting shrilly, "I don't know why you're picking on pigeons."
Eventually, feeling the buzz of camaraderie (or at least the beer), we disperse into the night, propelled by much back-slapping. Alas, the good vibes will not last.
And they're off! Or so those of us at Sittner's compound are told. In the least dramatic race launch imaginable, Cecil and Dave call in to report an 8:30 a.m. release. Someday, Utah racer Ray Jones tells me, the pigeons will be outfitted with GPS chips that feed their positions back in real time, to be displayed on a giant monitor, and won't that be exciting!
As it is, the day unfolds languorously. Smoked pork is served, hangovers nursed, rivals eyed warily and, most fervently, pool bets made. Powers has described the pools to me as "just like fantasy football," but they turn out to be nothing like fantasy football. For starters, you can only bet on your own birds (at least legally, wink, wink). Then you choose from a medley of options, including pools from $5 to $1,000 an entry. A devoted gambler can easily wager $10,000 and win four or five times that.
Furthermore, and this can get quite confusing, the birds don't return one at a time. Instead, they arrive in "drops," clusters of a dozen or so that are enticed to the lofts by a specially trained pigeon. All the birds in the first drop get a winner's share. Adding excitement, the first bird to make it all the way to one of the loft's openings earns another $25,000, which leads to searing drama as a handful of tired, hungry pigeons methodically nose their way toward a fat payout.
At noon, Elvis arrives. Last year it was Marilyn Monroe, the year before a showgirl. Today's entertainment appears to be not only channeling the King's late-era years of sequined jumpsuits but also living them: He looks as old as Presley would be today. Maybe this is Elvis.
As Elvis prepares his act (one amp with a microphone cord that's gone missing), Gustavo is in the parking lot trying to close a deal with the Hawaiians, a quartet of veteran fliers who brought ti leaves for good luck. The most gregarious of the bunch, Ed Tangonan—whose black ponytail, dark glasses, leather jacket and shark's tooth necklace make him look like the leader of some novelty mafia—is peering into the back of Gustavo's truck, appraising five caged breeding birds. He offers $1,000 apiece, but Gustavo wants $20,000.
"Is that so?" says Tangonan, picking up Gustavo's cane. "I tell you what I think. I think I have to walk with this after you take all my money!"
I wander back toward the grandstands. It's nearly 2 p.m., and the birds are due soon. We wait. We talk. Snippets of conversation:
"They need to start a new sport. Take desert tortoises out like a mile, wait a week and you got a winner."
"It's two? I should be drunk by now."
"It's not a 52-mph day. It's more like a 48-mph day."
Then, just like that, a patch of black swoops into view, there's a call of BIIIRRRDSSS! and then ... quiet. Too much commotion can spook the pigeons, you see. The first flock of 17 sweep in and circle the lofts once, twice, then four, seven times. It's like seeing an Indy car driver decide to do donuts just before the finish line. Finally, the birds alight, and now everyone is urging them to get in those goddam holes. To my right, Ray Jones, sunburned and nearly hoarse, has his hand on my shoulder and he's shouting, "How about that for an adrenaline rush!"
Eventually, with the birds in, Sittner emerges to read the winners, only something isn't right. His face is slack. He is shaking his head.
LOOKING UP at the crowd, Sittner frowns, then limply raises the microphone. "I don't know what to tell you, I am so disgusted right now," he says. "Half of the birds didn't clock. The computer, it—it didn't register them."
A murmur goes through the crowd. Didn't clock? How the hell will we know who won the cash?
And here's what's surprising, with all that's at stake: There is no backup system, no video camera trained on the lofts, no auxiliary clock, no designated spotters. Unless, that is, you count the 50 men, all with vastly different self-interests, who begin loudly proclaiming that they are ab-so-lute-ly sure they saw that one white bird nosing in to that far hole before that sort-of brown bird mighta nosed into that other hole. In other words, it's about as scientific as calling a third strike in the bottom of the ninth from the upper deck. By committee. And the committee is drunk.
Sittner speaks up again. He does have a partial solution, at least. He may not know the full order of the first 17 birds, but he does know the first one in: Vita King 3121.
There is a warbling whoop from inside the grandstand; I have an idea who it might be. I turn the corner to see a black ponytail bouncing around, like a mongoose being swung in circles. It is the Hawaiians. The ti leaves worked after all.
Only it isn't that easy, racers explain to me. And, strangely, it is me they are coming to, as if I have the power to set the record straight with my notebook.
If the birds didn't clock, who's to say which one went in first? So all the pool money is in question, and now the nine of those 17 racers whose pigeons didn't register all think their bird might have won that $25,000, because how did Ed really know the Hawaiians' went in first? Bob French frowns. "He's going to have a riot over there."
There is one saving grace: At least we know the birds in the first drop. Or so we think; Gustavo pulls me aside and, using his cane, diagrams how his pigeon might have slipped in with the first drop without being officially counted. Justice, he intones, will be served.
Eventually, mercifully, dusk falls. The racers leave, murmuring and swearing. In his office Sittner slumps in a chair, an untouched glass of Jack Daniel's in front of him. He is sunburned and has pork juice on his VEGAS CLASSIC T-shirt, which traces his ample belly. I feel bad for him. This is obviously a labor of avian love: He makes little to no money off the race and spends the better part of a year training other people's birds. Now this. Clocks have malfunctioned before, but never at a race this big. "It makes you sick to your stomach," he says. "Now I got to figure out who to give the $25,000 to." He pauses, stares a hole in his whiskey. "And to be honest, I have no idea which bird came in first."
The controversy will play out for a while. There are legal threats—which I hear of through Gustavo, who calls me both at home and at the office, and may still be calling me right now, as you read this. Those in the first drop are agitated; pool entrants are pissed. Sittner consults with three lawyers and, eventually, decides to grant the Hawaiians the full $25,000. Only, in what is truly the spirit of pigeon racing at its best, they decide to give $1,500 to each of the owners of unclocked birds in the first drop, effectively forfeiting $13,500.
A MONTH LATER I hear from Mike French. So, he asks, what did you think?
Can't say I'll be buying birds, I tell him, but I no longer find it all that strange. No stranger, after all, than many American pastimes. Why do people like NASCAR? Why do they collect stamps? At least pigeon racing is rooted in the natural world.
The racers will tell you it's about loving the birds, but I don't think that's quite right. Rather, I think, it's about narrowing the world down to others who speak a common language. It's about bragging rights and money, or at least what the money symbolizes (namely legitimacy). And it's about a childlike fascination with flight—an earthbound sack of blood and water and adipose tissue wanting to become one with the lithe, hollow-boned form of a bird.
Then again, perhaps it is too much to expect everyone to understand all this. Late in the afternoon on race day, I sat at a folding table next to Elvis. His black pompadour was deflating, and he had a coating of dusty sweat on his neck from belting out songs in the parking lot. He looked out at the gathered racers and chuckled. "Man," Elvis said. "The things that some people do."
"They race pigeons? For real?," my cabbie says. "Man, everybody knows pigeons are just rats with wings."
Being at Sittner's compound is like visiting a postapocalyptic future in which he who hoards the most birds holds the most power.
Pigeons are the Charles Barkleys of the natural world: unassuming, bottom-heavy yet surprisingly athletic.
Naming a winner is like calling a third strike from the upper deck. By committee. And the committee is drunk.
Meet the Flockers
Nearly 160 racing teams congregate at the Classic to root for—and bet on—their pigeons. But racers don't name their birds, in case one day they don't make it home.