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?
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!