PIGEON RACING & INTELLECTUAL PHILOSOPHY
Alan Baker replies to recent Elimar articles by Jim Emerton & John Clements
Elimar has recently carried two articles written by ‘intellectuals’ of the sport, Messrs Clements and Emerton, two people totally committed to the art/science of long distance pigeon racing. I read both articles and after each one there were certain things which I thought, ‘that’s not right’! And I say that with respect to both writers, who I always enjoy reading and who are great ambassadors for long distance pigeon racing and accepting my opinion is purely that and I could be wrong!
Take the first by Jim Emerton. Jim lists the qualities of a champion:- ‘Pure focus, dedication, ruthlessness, compassion, empathy, singularity of purpose, patience, longevity, in depth scientific/artistic insights and pragmatism. If these are suffused by possible GENIUS, and in a helpful social context, success is assured.’
Jim misses one of the key elements in my opinion – ‘luck’. Without luck no person may become a champion. I watch the Apprentice and Sir Alan Sugar epitomises for me someone who had luck, the luck to be in the right place at the right time, as are the contestants on his programme because if they are the great business brains of this country we are in trouble! We’ve recently had the Olympics and another example might be the rowers in the GB rowing team. Undoubtedly outstanding athletes but if they had been raised in the South Wales Valleys as I had, they would never have had the ‘luck’ to pursue such a sport. More likely they had the ‘luck’ to attend public school where such an opportunity is possible.
But let’s come back to pigeon racing. Why would a champion need luck? There is no doubt in my mind at the highest level of long distance racing location of fancier and the weather conditions dictate the winner of most races and that is down to luck. You only have to look at this year’s Barcelona International. The UK had absolutely no chance of winning the race with the conditions. Go a stage further and look at the UK result and conditions. The West of England and Wales were wiped out with rain and thick grey cloud cover and there was absolutely no chance of the winner being in those regions. Many may say it is swings and roundabouts, next year it may be favourable for the West, but that’s unlikely from Barcelona simply because of the huge drag going to mainland Western Europe. I would argue that one loft had no luck this year from Barcelona and that would be the Padfield loft, considering the conditions of the race and their pigeon flying to the south eastern Welsh valleys taking 8th Open in the BICC ten hours in front of the 2nd section and the longest flying pigeon on the BICC result. Why do I think they lacked ‘luck’? That pigeon must have been in fantastic form and be a fantastic athlete to have achieved such a performance. If the Padfields had had the luck where conditions were more suited then this pigeon might have achieved the ultimate? Yes I appreciate this is speculative and I do not intend to belittle the performance of the 8 pigeons recorded before it but I think it fair to say that if conditions were more favourable the Padfields would have expected to get even closer. You do not make the wind, the environment or the conditions and very few choose their location - a key element in pigeon racing. All those depend on luck but the greatest bit of luck in my opinion is the breeding of a champion.
The Padfield Family's 9th Open, 1st West Section and 1st WDGCC Barcelona 2012
Those that have bred champions will I suspect disagree with me but I firmly believe that the vast majority of champion pigeons are bred by ‘luck’. There are several factors that lead me to such a statement. First is the age old statement ‘the basket is my selector’. For me this is a contradiction in terms. No doubt to finish 1st Barcelona the pigeon has to have travelled in the basket to be liberated and will have been in the basket many times before, either at race points or in training. How many fanciers manage to breed a champion, and I mean in clubs open to everyone in the country not ‘regional’ national or classic clubs at the long distance? Very few. How many thousands of pigeons have been bred by thousands of fanciers never to be champions, every one of them tested in the basket? The basket is far better at finding your duffers than ever helping you produce a champion!
Jim refers to ‘in depth scientific/artistic insights’. This is a mystery to me. The nearest to such philosophy as I understand it, is BIFS. However my question would be how does BIFS or any pigeon fancier use science to match a pair of pigeons to breed a champion? That is the nub of the problem, pairing the parents that will breed the champion. It could be by handling, it could be by measuring the length of wing, the depth of colour on the bars of the pigeon, the distance from the vent to the keel, the narrowness of the slit at the back of the throat. But where is the scientific evidence, the paper that provides details of the research, the sample etc? There is none! The nearest I can think of to a scientific approach is by studying pedigree. Many line breed or inbreed to create their champion but it’s a bit like the basket, there are thousands bred this way but very few turn up as champions and how many of their brothers and sisters are champions too? No, for me it’s luck. Sure the fancier that breeds a champion may be able to show how they’ve line bred or inbred to a champion but many hundreds/thousands will have done the same and failed. Or the fancier might swear that the only way is by the basket. I can accept that this is how you eventually find your champion but there is no way that the basket can be used to find the parents of a champion pigeon. Look at Derby winners. How many have there been and how many have bred their like?
For me it’s luck. Sure, if you are bright and you have been brought up with pigeons you will have learnt far more than a fancier who has not but there have been many top fanciers who have won many good races but when it has come to the big one just failed and never won it. For me that’s bad luck not lack of genes that make you a champion. Over the years I have seen many fanciers who have been at the top for a decade or so only to fall away and become one of the also rans. My thoughts on this are that they found an excellent breeding pair and most of their winning progeny came down from this pair but once this pair was no more they were no longer able to produce the pigeons needed and the fancier did not have the skill to create from new pairs.
Having said that, there is no doubt some fanciers are better than others and do become champions because of their abilities to get the best out of what they have. But often the pigeon that is the breeder is lost racing before it has had the chance to demonstrate its prepotency. Luck is an essential part of finding and becoming a champion in my opinion. The intellectuals may disagree but my mind is set that this is the case. Perhaps that’s why I’m not one!
The other article I disagree with is the one by John Clements where he says, ‘Long distance racing is also more difficult’. I cannot agree; when I lived in Barnsley and 5000 pigeons were flying into the town in the sprint races, the same fanciers would win and the same fanciers would be knocking on the door, against terrific competition where the race from 100 mile was won by fractions of a second. The likes of J R Woods and Pearson & Dransfield were always there or thereabouts (and many others across the town). For me that was far more difficult competition than scoring well in the section or open from Tarbes NFC. And I am someone only interested in long distance racing. The ability to consistently get that extra edge against such immense competition was actually far tougher. Where I think long distance racing is tougher is that there is a much smaller pool of genes of pigeons that can fly 550+ miles and the fancier has to have the ability or be lucky enough to have paired the right birds together to create a pigeon that will fly such distance, and there we are back to luck again! Some fanciers seem to do it year in year out; many in Kent for example and on the South coast seem to get 600 milers consistently from the International races but rarely have high International positions. Perhaps for discussion another time?
I was intrigued by John Clements’ supposition that the sprint pigeons are the more aggressive and therefore better suited to sprint racing. I think of John Halstead’s very good Barcelona winner, one of a few that scored highly in the International result. This pigeon has been bred down from generations of pigeons that were champion sprinters form Gilchrist & Brennan of Bolden Colliery Van Den Bosche, Louella Grondellar, W & L Crosby , Meuleman and Albert Babbington. Since John has tried them at the distance they won too! I believe that there are pigeons that will win from 50 to 700 mile and to restrict yourself to a type that can only do one or the other handicaps you. John Halstead has done it, the Coopers have done it and one of our all time greats A H Bennett did it.
Is pigeon racing a sport you can intellectualise? Yes it is. We need the intellectuals to guide us; Piet De Weerd for me was the epitome of the intellectual fancier. Nigel Lane is another but sadly is silent. However, it becomes dangerous when the intellectuals believe there is a set formula, a stereotype, then they start introducing blinkers and they create short sighted philosophies, especially when talking about long distance pigeons. After all, they need to be long sighted! But the eye is another story!
John Clements replies
I read with interest Alan Baker’s piece about supposed difficulty. My interpretation of difficulty is the degree of rarity. With this premise in mind it is a fact that long distance pigeons are rarer than sprint pigeons. Where I do agree with Alan is the fancier does not have to be extra clever at long distance flying provided his pigeons are of excellent quality. From this we must presume it is the quality of the pigeon not the quality of the fancier which is the rarer.
Nevertheless we all fall into the trap of the odd incidence signifying a breakdown in general rules. We can all come up with examples contrary to the norm but in the long run it is the overwhelming weight of numbers that signify a kind of general truth. In fact we just don’t know a basic truth of which cock trod which hen anywhere near 90 percent of the time.
Another trap we all fall into is granting attributes to so call strains thinking strains describe something. In most cases they don’t. There hasn’t been a strain yet that can claim losses don’t occur in pigeons of that strain or that all the pigeons of a certain strain will fly 500 miles.
Jim Emerton replies
In reply to Alan, my thoughts and responses are based entirely on my personal and subjective experiences and are not necessarily a representation of absolute truth or fact which may escape our knowledge and education. The fancier's job in objective reality should be to optimise the racing bird's condition before racing with practical application of his mental resources. I tend to take an existentialist view from my academic days. As a writer for MENSA, I enjoy creative writing using powers of intuition. Man is enriched by opinion! Long may this be the case.
Dr Jannie Snyman, South Africa replies 6/9/12
Sir, In the very interesting debate regarding luck and distance racing, there is no doubt one needs plenty of luck on the day i.e wind direction, weather, hawks, wires, form, overnight hazards, etc. We happen to be vey good friends of the Padfield family and have some incredible pigeons off "Padfield's Perfection", their famous Pau red cock and a daughter of the "Blank Cheque Hen". You have to race with the right blood - meaning very good proven long distance pigeons. They have won for us at the distance when they have all going for them. In 2010 winning at 920Km overnight with 3 pigons in 16 minutes. And 2008 about the same story. Did not compete in 2009 due to the wedding of our son in the UK and 2011 no race due to logistics. And this year again no race more than 850Km.
But South Africa's own Gary Player coined this phrase: 'The more you practice the luckier you get.' This I think is true even in the lottery of distance racing. I most certainly agree that it is probably easier than sprint racing BUT if you do not have the tools (quality long distance pigeons) do not even attempt the long races. And it is cruel to use this as a means of "cleaning the loft of poor quality pigeons" - only the best can do these distances. And you have to personally manage a number of disappointments with this type of racing - mostly it is you and not the pigeon that is to blame. Have a pint when all is dark and gloomy!!! The sun shines again tomorrow (maybe not always the case in the UK!). Lastly, I really envy the choice your fanciers have flying in so many organisations with so may choices of races - we battle but survive somehow. I would love the same opportunity and follow it all thanks to the internet. Regards, Dr Jannie Snyman, Mossel Bay, South Africa.
Alan Baker's further reply to John & Jim - 7/9/12
What a pleasant surprise to see comments from John Clements and Jim Emerton. I thank them for their courtesy.
John refers to ‘degree of rarity’ as a definition of difficulty. And I have to agree with John, the exception proves the rule and there are always such instances that can be thrown up to confuse an argument. However that in itself does not stop me pursuing such examples that may in time become substantive. The best example of change from exception to rule was when the earth was square, or more importantly considered by the finest brains as such. Those that lived then and suggested the world was actually round were heretics!
But let me come back to reality and pigeon racing and John’s argument. There is no doubt there are far more ‘sprint’ pigeons but that is down to ratios. If you are a sprint man your birds only get tested in short races and if your birds are from a good quality base, and most lofts today can point to at least 4/5 pigeons from very good lines, then your losses at such distances are, percentage wise, far less than the long distance. And what maintains the ratio of sprint over long distance is the amount of wins. You see fanciers winning multiple 1st in sprints regularly and you have big set ups like Premier, WLG etc investing in the best continental pigeons and then winning with the progeny, whereas the long distance fancier concentrates on a few races each year.
But the big issue for me is that these so called sprint pigeons do not get tested at the long distance and who would want to send such a pigeon that may have won 5 x 1st at 200 mile to 600 mile? You would need a lot of courage and perhaps some would argue stupidity. I must admit to being set in my mind here, but I believe there are pigeons from so called sprint families that will fly and win at 50 miles and 700 miles, but why are examples rare? Well, not in my opinion because of ‘degree of rarity’. To be classed as rare then there have to be exponents and I don’t mean the rare few but a substantial number of exponents that attempt this i.e. try pigeons considered as sprinters at longer distances. There is a great degree of rarity here but it does not necessarily reflect difficulty because in my opinion it needs many fanciers to try before the degree of difficulty can be determined. And exactly the same principle can be made with long distance pigeons; 95% of long distance fanciers I would say send to the sprint races as a means of preparation for the distance and if the bird should happen to do well at a short race then that’s just an added bonus because the pigeons have not been managed or conditioned to compete in these races. I’m sorry if that is not explained well - it is my lack of written skill.
Jim says his thoughts and responses are based entirely on his personal and subjective experiences. There is absolutely no doubt that fanciers of Jim’s calibre sharing their experience and providing advice is of great benefit but when it is purely subjective there is bias so it needs to include objectivity too. That’s what I have tried to be and let me clarify, because I am not a champion does not mean that I cannot have observational skills and the ability to see the traits as well. Two of the great coaches, Carwyn James and Jose Mourinho weren’t great exponents but they had/have fantastic ability managing champions!
I am absolutely positive in my mind that luck is an important factor in pigeon racing. There are those that say you make your own luck. I don’t believe that, I believe those that are special have ‘extra’ talents. As a school boy I played sport at top level, playing with some people who went on to play in the premiership and for the British Lions. I played 1st team cricket from the age of 14 too and in all those sports, the special ones had better balance, quicker reaction, better awareness, etc. ‘Extra’ talent is often mistaken for luck.
An existentialist view is perhaps beyond my intellect, however my ability to dissect and criticise myself is on a par with most. I would suggest Jim you are a lucky man if you never needed ‘luck’ in your pursuit of long distance racing. There I go again, I keep coming back to luck! We are undoubtedly enriched by opinion perhaps that’s where intellect prevails; the ability to decide whose opinion is worth consideration and whether in your own environment such opinion is relevant.