Foreigners land big bucks in local bird race

A LARGE contingent of overseas pigeon fanciers ruffled a few local feathers when they swept the board at the Million Dollar Pigeon Race at Sun City on Saturday afternoon.

With R10 million up for grabs - and the winning bird earning its owner a nice little nest egg of R1,6 million - there wasn't only pride at stake but a huge amount of money as the birds flew 550km from Hopetown in the Karoo to Pilanesberg.

More than 3100 birds took part in the richest bird race in the world that attracted entrants from 33 countries.

Coming home in a time of 9 hours and 42 minutes was Ali of the Czech Republic. Less than a minute behind him was 2 Spy of Belgium.

Cheered on by a very vocal crowd in a packed Superbowl, spectators could follow the last part of the race on two giant screens as the birds returned to their loft.

Race director Zandy "Mr Pigeon" Meyer said the event continues to grow.

"When we began in 1997 we had 869 entrants. This year we restricted participation to 3155 - the majority of them from overseas," he said. "Germany has the largest number of visitors with 600 making the trip this year."

Training for the event begins in May when the birds arrive in South Africa. After a three month quarantine period, the hard work begins.

"We have a team of 13 who train the birds. They start with flights of just 15km and as their strength improves so do their distances," Meyer said.

Pigeon racing is not immune from the scourge of doping but regular testing has eliminated cheating on the local scene.

"The birds are tested before a big race and in the last few years none have tested positive for banned substances," he said.