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."