The sport of awkward, feathery kings


This past Sunday, upon entering Canterbury Park amid a sea of fellow race-goers, one mother’s enthusiastic declaration to her toddler son rang true: “Go ostriches! Right, Jack?”

And “go” they did, as Canterbury Park’s Extreme Race Day — a wacky hodgepodge of ostrich and camel races — packed them in, gimmicked them out and, yes, entertained the throngs of middle-class humanity on hand.

The Staff

As Canterbury’s multiple levels, restaurants and gambling outlets pulsed with the flux of the event’s patronage, some of the venue’s staff chimed in on what makes Extreme Day, well, so extreme. “With ostriches and camels it really brings ’em out!” shouted the exuberant bugler Lynn Deichert , decked out in a red blazer and goofy black hat. Deichert proceeded to blast the infamous “Call to Post” notes and swore, “My lips really get cookin’ by the fifth race!”

While Extreme Day might sound like the perfect opportunity to get liquored up on racetrack margaritas and, for the purists, mint juleps, drink vendor Anna Garin maintains, “I feel like there are a lot more families, so there’s less consumption.” As sad as the missed pairing of alcohol and giant bird racing is, Garin still considers Extreme Day one of Canterbury’s best.

The veteran

Tommy Bartram , despite his diminutive stature, positively exudes rock star hipness. With his finely coiffed hair and model grin, the former jockey (1986 to 1992) is now Canterbury’s Chaplin, a post that sees him leading prayers and counseling existentially compromised jocks at the track’s on-site chapel. But Sunday he was here to talk about, and participate in, ostrich racing.

“You gotta be sitting still; it’s like sitting on a football,” offers Bartram, explaining the intricacies of racing ostriches. He went on to say that any direction the bird happens to lean, the rider will undoubtedly tumble.

Canterbury decided to disallow betting on the ostrich/camel races, but perhaps for good cause. “I wouldn’t know how to handicap a bird,” Bartram admits. And if the art of appraising flightless African birds prior to competition eludes Tommy Bartram, it’s safe to say potential betters would be doing so blindly.

The Kid

Dylan Williams, a strawberry blond, lanky whippersnapper, is a mere 18 years old.

Currently the consummate up-and-comer, Williams — dubbed “The Baby Bulldog” — has been a licensed jockey since age 16. His horses have amassed purses of more than $62,000 this year, but on Extreme Day it’s likely Williams’ mind was on one thing: the bird he was set to ride into battle, named Mine That Beak.

“I rode one last year in Iowa and I fell off,” admitted the affably youthful Williams. “So hopefully I’ll improve.” But with this young jockey, the bigger picture is always at the forefront. When pressed as to whether he’d prefer winning horse racing’s illustrious Triple Crown or lope to victory atop Mine That Beak at Canterbury, Williams’ eyes were firmly fixated on the prize. “It’d be close,” he explained. “But I’m kinda leaning towards the Triple Crown.”

The Race

With ostrich-racing time drawing nearer, the capacity crowd at Canterbury surged toward optimum vantage points. As handlers struggled getting the mighty birds into their respective blocks, a tangible sense of anticipation washed over the sun-soaked crowd. The birds — Mine That Beak, Roadrunner’s Nightmare, Imarealbird, Eggsacta and Fiesty Feathers [sic] — were all named by Canterbury staffer Jenessa Olson, who described the task as “hard.”

But with befitting names, scary dinosaur talons raring to go and jockeys mounted, the race was, as they say, on. And with the PA’s final boom of “Are you guys ready to watch these birds roll?!” the crowd’s deafening cheer more than answered the question.

To say the ostriches exploded out of the gates would be an understatement. The birds strutted out of their starting places and three of the five immediately bucked their jockeys via the deranged movements that ostriches possess. The remaining birds, one of which was topped by our hero Williams, continued their bizarre paths towards the finish line.

As the jockeys clinched on to their birds like fertilized eggs to the Octomom’s uterine wall, it was long-weird-neck and long-weird-neck heading into the final stretch. It was then, though, that Williams summoned what little Mine That Beak had left in its oddly proportioned body and surged ahead for a definitive victory, leaving a wake of fallen jockeys and confused birds walking in circles among thunderous applause behind him.

The Victory

With the race in the books, the crowd’s cheers turned to excited chatter as victor Williams made his way to the winner’s circles amid the chaos of handlers chasing ostriches and shoving them into trucks. Not Mine That Bird, though, as he made his way to the Circle as well.

A giddy and exulted Williams seized the mic as onlookers roared, and he went on to describe the race as “pretty fun, something different,” adding that he was, “a little bit scared.” But who wouldn’t be? Mine That Bird’s handler, Joe Hedrick, a girthy, jovial cowboy type who not only owns an exotic animal farm/bed & breakfast in Nickerson, Kan., but is also a former rodeo clown , learned firsthand the perils of being around a racing ostrich high on its own sense of accomplishment. As Hedrick approached a beady-eyed, gaping-mouthed Mine That Bird in the winner’s circle, the bird sent him tumbling on his rear, comically defying its master with Hedrick’s cowboy hat flying off as a fitting topper.

But Extreme Day was hardly about Williams’ rocket ship ride to the top of the racing world. It wasn’t even about the strange beasts pushed into the competitive field for the delight of attendees. No, Extreme Day and its ostriches is about family. Family coming together and forgetting their troubles to share, in mutual awe, the majesty that is a seven foot, bald bird topped by a tiny little man in a neon-colored stretchy suit.

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