Ploughing his own furrow.
As pigeon fanciers we are all ‘Gods in our own Heavens’ when we step in to the lofts and as such we are faced with decisions to make at each stage throughout the season that will impact on our successes. One of the biggest decisions we make is whether we want to compete consistently at a specific distance sprinting to the coast or at middle/ long distance events. In my time reporting on top fanciers I have met a few who focus on national and classic racing successfully but they usually keep a toe in the domestic racing camp. I well remember a multiple national winner telling me that federation and open races were his bread and butter and paid for his national entries, and he is not alone in this mentality. Amongst the distance minded men there are a few who have the missile guided focus at a level where the only races that come up on their radar are national races, and they have the strength of conviction that sees them sacrifice club racing when the national programmes kick in mid season, and a few only get their clocks set when their birds are in the baskets for national competitions. There are even fewer fanciers who only compete in national races with a desire, focus and passion that sees them completely forsake club racing to the point where they are not members of any domestic clubs nor do they drop their birds in to mid week races for ‘training’. The subject of this report -Max Hawthorne - is one such fancier, and in a short period of time his approach has been reaping rewards. I have known Max for a few years now and when he was involved in domestic racing we competed in the same federation. By his own admission Max couldn’t fly a kite on a windy day and for much of his time racing through the programme at club and federation level he was always at the wrong end of the result, and was having to content himself with getting the odd ‘good un’ from a sticky race. A few years ago saw a change in circumstances that saw Max relocate and with everything being up in the air he decided to re-evaluate what he wanted from the sport and what he actually wanted to achieve. Now, such an approach might seem a bit up in the air and grandiose, but it makes sense if you think about it and as the house move afforded Max the opportunity to make changes he decided to make the most of the opportunity to start again. Furthermore, having decided to focus on competing from Bordeaux and Tarbes he could cut his cloth to suit his needs, and a major decision was made to look for a system that allowed the birds to fit in around the time that Max had. As it turns out, after picking the brains of some of the top distance men around Max realised there was no ‘system’, and so decided to set in motion the processes that would let him create his own system and hope that it was successful.
In terms of what pigeons he would be relying on at these distances Max followed the old adage of ‘horses for courses’, and stuck his head above his garden fence to have a look around at who was doing eth damage at the distance. Max flies 640 miles from Tarbes and so set about looking for lofts with a record of consistency from Tarbes that flew further than he did. His research brought him back again and again to the lofts of Brian and Thelma Denney. Contact was made and Max ran through his plan with Brian and the end result was some clever purchasing by Max with guidance from Brian. The birds that Max brought in from The Denney partnership were very close to top birds they had performing for them at that time and included the bloodlines of ‘Classic Lad’, ‘Blue Pau’, and ‘Dark Gem’. The intention was to breed around this nucleus of birds and test the offspring hard to allow Max to sift out the rubbish and building on the remaining birds. Alongside these Denney birds Max had a few birds that he had brought with him when he relocated, and these represented the very best of the Peter Oliver birds that Peter had gifted to Max. It’s fair to say that Max was investing his future success in these 3 families fusing together and he had every faith in these birds standing up to the tasks that would be asked of them.
However, that bit of luck that we all need in pigeon racing was about to come Max’s way. He was involved in helping to look after a pigeon that had gone a bit wrong on its way back to Scotland from France and in arranging for it to be returned back to owner. The gentleman who owned the bird was a man by the name of Wilf Flockhart, a stalwart of Scottish distance racing along with his father and brother for 50 + years. Wilf wanted to thank Max for his efforts and offered him some young birds as a thank you, initially Max was inclined to refuse the offer as he had just invested in the Denney birds and at that point he saw no role for any other birds in his plans. However, he accepted and these Flockhart birds were soon settles in the Lutterworth lofts. As is the way with gift birds these Flockhart birds were the best that Wilf could have offered and were jam packed with high performance bloodlines including ‘Coal Newq King’ and ‘Trails spark’. This was the very same bloodline that saw the Flockharts competing at the very top through to 600 miles up in to Scotland.
The entire racing set up old birds and young birds.
Max was massively impressed with the quality on display with the Flockhart birds and these became a big part in the Master Plan. Max then set about breeding a team around these 3 strands, pulling them all together in to the melting pot. His system for testing these birds was disarmingly simple privately trained as young birds, a couple of short channel races as yearlings and then in to Tarbes or Bordeaux as 2 year olds. Just to show off a bit, Max has entered a hen that was only ever had private training and a trainer from Tours as a yearling. She was then dropped in to Tarbes as a 2 year old for her first competitive race and was 15th Section!! As I said, disarmingly simple so what could go wrong? Just to clarify, can I refer you to what I said earlier about Max not being a member of any domestic club. This means that the yearlings first ever ‘race’ would be a channel race of at least 217 miles and in national competition!! No tramlines or corridor flying for these birds, it is in at the deep end with them having to rely on their ancestry to get them home because their experience will have been limited at this point. The birds are usually paired at the start of the season but then worked on a form of celibacy to keep them fresh before being paired up again prior to Tarbes, but if the birds are in good nick they may just as easily be kept celibate for Tarbes.
So, what is this system then? Well, to Max’s way of thinking you need to start with the right tools or certainly an animal with the right bloodlines - then you need to nurture it as a young bird and yearling, keeping stress levels as low as possible. Then you are at a point where you can start asking questions of it at 640 miles. The young birds in the Hawthorne loft are brought along gently, with Max privately training down the middle to Cirencester, about 60 miles, and if time and weather permits he will have them a few times off the South coast. Then they are lifted in to a training chuck that is south east of the loft on the outskirts of London. Max asserts that this is to get them to use their brains and to confuse them a little, and by doing this you tend to have fewer followers. I would think that given he only breeds an armful of young birds the training down the middle would take care of any chaff you might have as the small numbers being trained would result in them being well enough educated. After this training programme they are put to one side to rest and moult through.
Stock loft on the right and resting section for hens on the left.
Obviously, starting with a small team of young birds means that by the time they are 2 years old your Tarbes candidates would be a bit thin on the ground. But this has not deterred Max from competing consistently from this 640 miles race point. Bearing in mind that Max has only been working on this system since the young bird season in 2012 (he did have a few latebreds in 2011) he has achieved a good strike rate sending only ¾ birds. In 2014 he was 2nd Section and 81st open with another couple in the result as well, and in 2015 he was 6th and 19th Section from Tarbes - and if you remember neither of these were easy races. These results demonstrate one of the benefits of starting from a small nucleus these birds were all related. In fact the 3 results above were achieved by brothers and sisters and the 2015 results were by a pair of nest mates. These birds are the result of a first cross between the original Flockhart birds, an original Denney hen and some of the Peter Oliver blood, so the 3 bloodlines that Max chose to start this crazy adventure all stood up to it at the first time of asking. So, whether by accident or design Max has the beginnings of something potent here.
The proof of the pudding?.he might be on the right tracks here!!
It is abundantly clear that Max has the birds for the job and the system is evolving to meet his requirements and the strengths of the birds. He could easily upscale the size of his operation as he has the room to do so, but is reluctant to go down this path. He has a system that fits around him and a team of birds that is responding to it successfully. The 2016 season saw Max experience one of the down sides of running a loft on this scale, a couple of dodgy tosses and persistent attention from hawks saw Max lose several of his key players from the race team. He responded to this by calling a halt to racing in 2016, so he deliberately did not send to Tarbes in an effort to consolidate the blood lines he had, but will be coming out fighting again in 2017. I feel that as he starts to plough the blood of his performers back in through the tight nucleus he will improve his already impressive strike rate, and I don’t doubt that there will be a section winner before too long. Max has doubtless benefited from a bit of luck in getting these quality birds from these three gentlemen, but he will also have benefited immensely from their skills and experience and he would like to acknowledge a debt of thanks to them all.