The sport of awkward, feathery kings

Last week’s Extreme Race Day at Canterbury saw ostriches in the exact state God intended: being topped by tiny men and racing for sport.

by Jay Boller

The Scene This past Sunday, upon entering Canterbury Park amid a sea of fellow race-goers, one motherâÄôs enthusiastic declaration to her toddler son rang true: âÄúGo ostriches! Right, Jack?âÄù And âÄúgoâÄù they did, as Canterbury ParkâÄôs Extreme Race Day âÄî a wacky hodgepodge of ostrich and camel races âÄî packed them in, gimmicked them out and, yes, entertained the throngs of middle-class humanity on hand. The Staff As CanterburyâÄôs multiple levels, restaurants and gambling outlets pulsed with the flux of the eventâÄôs patronage, some of the venueâÄôs staff chimed in on what makes Extreme Day, well, so extreme. âÄúWith ostriches and camels it really brings âÄôem out!âÄù shouted the exuberant bugler Lynn Deichert , decked out in a red blazer and goofy black hat. Deichert proceeded to blast the infamous âÄúCall to PostâÄù notes and swore, âÄúMy lips really get cookinâÄô by the fifth race!âÄù 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, âÄúI feel like there are a lot more families, so thereâÄôs less consumption.âÄù As sad as the missed pairing of alcohol and giant bird racing is, Garin still considers Extreme Day one of CanterburyâÄôs 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 CanterburyâÄôs Chaplin, a post that sees him leading prayers and counseling existentially compromised jocks at the trackâÄôs on-site chapel. But Sunday he was here to talk about, and participate in, ostrich racing. âÄúYou gotta be sitting still; itâÄôs like sitting on a football,âÄù 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. âÄúI wouldnâÄôt know how to handicap a bird,âÄù Bartram concedes. And if the art of appraising flightless African birds prior to competition eludes Tommy Bartram, itâÄôs 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 âÄî dubbed âÄúThe Baby BulldogâÄù âÄî has been a licensed jockey since age 16. His horses have amassed purses of more than $62,000 this year, but on Extreme Day itâÄôs likely WilliamsâÄô mind was on one thing: the bird he was set to ride into battle, named Mine That Beak. âÄúI rode one last year in Iowa and I fell off,âÄù admitted the affably youthful Williams. âÄúSo hopefully IâÄôll improve.âÄù But with this young jockey, the bigger picture is always at the forefront. When pressed as to whether heâÄôd prefer winning horse racingâÄôs illustrious Triple Crown or lope to victory atop Mine That Beak at Canterbury, WilliamsâÄô eyes were firmly fixated on the prize. âÄúItâÄôd be close,âÄù he explained. âÄúBut IâÄôm kinda leaning towards the Triple Crown.âÄù 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 âÄî Mine That Beak, RoadrunnerâÄôs Nightmare, Imarealbird, Eggsacta and Fiesty Feathers [sic] âÄî were all named by Canterbury staffer Jenessa Olson, who described the task as âÄúhard.âÄù But with befitting names, scary dinosaur talons raring to go and jockeys mounted, the race was, as they say, on. And with the PAâÄôs final boom of âÄúAre you guys ready to watch these birds roll?!âÄù the crowdâÄôs 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 OctomomâÄôs 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 crowdâÄôs cheers turned to excited chatter as victor Williams made his way to the winnerâÄôs 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 âÄúpretty fun, something different,âÄù adding that he was, âÄúa little bit scared.âÄù But who wouldnâÄôt be? Mine That BirdâÄôs 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 winnerâÄôs circle, the bird sent him tumbling on his rear, comically defying its master with HedrickâÄôs cowboy hat flying off as a fitting topper. But Extreme Day was hardly about WilliamsâÄô rocket ship ride to the top of the racing world. It wasnâÄôt 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.