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The next morning, all the birds are released simultaneously. They start off in a giant, flapping pack, circling the starting area a few times to orient themselves. Then they dart homeward, breaking into smaller and smaller groups as the stronger birds surge to the front.
Breeders see none of this. They remain back at their lofts, staring skyward, anxiously awaiting their birds. When one finally appears, the feeling, says Ron Steinbrenner, 57, race manager of the San Diego Classic, one of America's top races, "is nothing short of euphoric. It's like watching your own horse come down the homestretch in the Kentucky Derby."
The bird's countermark is removed and placed in a tamperproof pigeon-racing clock, which records the finish time. Because each pigeon flies to its own loft and some are closer to the starting point than others, prize money is awarded not to the bird that finishes first, but to the one that flies the fastest. This is measured in yards flown per minute and is calculated by dividing the distance traveled—as determined by the club for each loft—by the time elapsed since the race's start.
For a race like the San Diego Classic, in which breeders from across America vie for nearly $200,000 in total prize money, breeders ship their birds to a local club representative. A trainer then settles the pigeons in a single loft for several months and prepares them for the race—to that loft. If prize money is won, most of it goes to the breeder, and the local club receives a percentage.
Pigeon breeding has a long history. Three-thousand-year-old Egyptian bas-reliefs depict trained carrier pigeons, and in the first century B.C., Julius Caesar used them as messengers to his troops during conquests. In the 1800s pigeons carried stock prices from London across the English Channel to Belgium. And in World War II, the U.S. Army employed 54,000 homing pigeons to transport messages to troops in the field.
Formal races began in the early 1800s in Belgium, and in 1878 the first major contest was held in the U.S., with a top prize of $100. Today the stakes are a tad higher. One of the most prestigious American races, the Snowbird Classic, which is held each November in the Los Angeles area, offers more than $700,000 in prize money. Following July's annual Barcelona International, pigeon racing's Super Bowl, the winning bird has in recent years sold for more than $200,000. And according to Strange, who has traveled the world in search of first-rate pigeons, there are races in Taiwan with first prizes of much more than $1 million.
As prize money escalates, so do the prices of birds. The winner of the '92 Barcelona was bought by a British breeding company for a record $230,000. And even Strange's birds, among the most highly priced in the U.S. at middle distances, are in such demand that until recently the only ad he ran this year was one that informed breeders that he was sold out of birds.
But as pigeon racing shifts implacably from sport to business, there is also a vocal backlash. Pigeon racing, say purists, is traditionally a backyard hobby, passed down from parents to children, a skill that must be learned, not purchased. Even Strange, the epitome of the business side of breeding, agrees: "You can spend a fortune on pigeons and never win a thing. Breeding is a talent that can't be bought; to create a winner you have to go into your loft and instinctively understand what your birds need."
Some fanciers go further, claiming that the sale of birds is unnecessary. "The prices are scaring people away from the hobby," says Don Corcoran, 72, a veteran Montana breeder. "But the truth is, you don't have to spend a dime on birds to become a winner. When I started more than 60 years ago, my racers were given to me by a neighbor, free of charge. And if there's anybody out there who's just beginning, or who's not doing too well, just let me know and I'll do the same."