Sun, Jan 04, 2004 - Page 17 News List

The highs and lows of pigeon racing

Taiwan leads the world in pigeon racing. Nowhere else in the world comes close in terms of financial reward, devotion and innovative ways of increasing the speed and endurance of its flocks

By Jules Quartly  /  STAFF REPORTER

With millions of NT dollars at stake in prize money and gambling, pigeon racing is a sport with passionate adherents in Taiwan. The involvement of gangsters in the sport, however, gives it a seedy reputation and drives it out of the public spotlight.

PHOTO: JULES QUARTLY, TAIPEI TIMES

The life of a racing pigeon in Taiwan is spoiled, competitive and short. The bird is pampered for its first four months and is subsequently forced to exceed the limits of its strength in a series of progressively faster and longer races, to either become the champion and breed to its heart's content in avian luxury, or lose and end up on the barbecue.

It could be argued there is no bigger or more lucrative sport in the country, as there are hundreds of thousands of pigeon fanciers, up to 500 races a week and a bird can earn more in one race than a baseball player can in a season.

No other country comes close to Taiwan in terms of the amount of money involved, the number of birds and races and the fervor with which the sport is followed.

But pigeon racing in Taiwan has a shady reputation, not only because of the extraordinary lengths to which breeders will go to win, but also because of the sport's deep connections to gangsters, especially through gambling.

In other parts of the world where pigeon racing is practiced, the birds are viewed more like pets and national regulations curb illegal gambling and help prevent burnout and loss of bird life. Here, there is less space for sentimentality.

"We hear a lot about how Europeans can't believe the money and racing here. They are very jealous," said a man surnamed Du, during a recent interview. Du is a senior official in one of the 15 pigeon-racing associations registered in Taipei County and, like other people interviewed for this article, requested his full name not be used, for fear of attracting police attention.

"Pigeon racing is serious business. it's much more difficult than keeping a pet. There is the nutrition, management, breeding lines and racing arrangements, so many things," Du said.

"There are so many variables that it's impossible for there to be one winner all the time. So, as a sport, it's very open."

Signing up for the big time

As Du checked off two baskets of pigeons brought into his office so their ages could be verified for an upcoming race, he talked about how he has been raising pigeons for 30 years and racing them professionally for 25.

He gauges the age of the birds by examining the color of their wings, measuring them, looking at their eyes and checking for other age-defining signs. He also closely examines the ring on one of each pigeon's legs, which is supposed to give the birth date of the bird, the name of its owner and other information.

All birds are logged no later than three or four days after birth, but occasionally the tags are broken off or tampered with and replaced with another ring to enter a different bird for a race.

On this day there are no problems, and when Du is certain the bird is who its owner claims it is, he stamps its wing with a large red seal. The pigeons coo as if pleased at all the attention in the expert hands of their handlers. They are all sleek, well-bred and healthy creatures.

One of Du's colleagues in the association, who has been listening to the conversation, puts down his motorbike helmet and says that pigeon racing must be taken seriously. "We test our birds to the limit," he says.

He explains that the birds begin training at a young age with small, private races that lead to three or four time trials in which they must perform well to enter the big races.

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