In Defense of Long Distance Racing   by John Vance

What a refreshing change to read in the Racing Pigeon Digest lately about the renaissance resurgence of long distance racing in the USA. Over the past several issues, there have been articles about newly established 600 mile races in Houston,TX and Brooksville,FL., a two part articles about the history of a long distance strain in the Nebraska area, an article "highlighting" a top long distance flyer, and two advertisements announcing new long distance regional "Open races", one in the Northeast the other in the West.

As an affectionado of long distance racing, I welcome these articles and announcements as essential to preserving the great American tradition of Long Distance flying.

Over the past 30 years, the trend in the USA, has been towards more short and middle distance races on the schedule and less long distance races. When I first became interested in racing pigeons, anything less than 250 miles was considered a "training" race. Real racing didn't start until the 300 mile station and winning a 500 or 600 mile race was the pinnacle of the season for most flyers.

The 1960's began a wave of short distance strains moving from Europe to the USA. First and foremost would be the Janssens, but also the Van Hoves, Van Loons, Van Reets, etc. Since then, most race schedules have changed so that about 80% of their old bird races are at 375 miles or less.

Time and time again, I hear from flyers across the country, who want to continue this tradition of long distance flying, having to fight every year to preserve the 500 and longer race stations. Some protractors are even claiming that sending a bird to a 600 mile race station is "cruel".

What these protractors are really saying is that it would be "cruel for them" to send their own birds to the 600 because they do not know how to select and conditions birds for these longer races. It is sad that so many have no idea how to breed, train and condition for 500 and 600 mile races. Twenty years ago, many flyers possessed these skills. The USA was, I believe, the first country to have a 500 mile day bird, 600 mile day bird and 700 mile day bird. We were the first to fly the 1000 mile station as a scheduled race, in many clubs.

The last thirty years, has been a transition period. Many fanciers had to develop and maintain two types of birds to be able to compete at all distances. They developed the shorter and longer distance birds separately, and maintain different training and breeding methods to accommodate both types of races.

These day, many flyers have one and only one system for preparing birds for the races. They treat all birds as though they are fast maturing, short / middle distance birds. As such, they are more likely than not, losing any birds capable of flying the 500 to 600 mile races, long before these birds can be proven out and identified. Their quest for immediate gratification, precludes them from successful competition except in youngbirds and short / middle distance old bird races.

The great American Long Distance flyer, Milton E. Haffner of Fort Wayne, Indiana, had this to say about his preparation of birds for long distance racing: "I do not like to ship a bird to the 1000 mile station until it has been to the 500 and 600, which means it must be in its 4th year of flying. I do not like to send yearlings to the 500 or 600. only to 275 miles. Then the 3rd year to 500 and 600." He goes on to report on his returns from the 1000 mile station: "In the last 18 years, I have shipped a total of 66 birds to 1000 mile race stations and of this total of 66 birds, 48 have returned home. This is quite a good return home percentage."

Now Milton E. Haffner was at the far end of the racing pigeon spectrum, he was an extreme long distance flyer. He believed races under 300 miles are only trainers. He bred and trained his birds to reach their peak of performance at three years of age and older. His percentage of returns from 1000 miles over 18 years surpasses many of the results I have seen from flyers sending their birds no further than 400 miles.

Many lofts of today do not even have a three year old bird on the race team, probably not even more than a few two year old bird on the team. Instead, they must year after year depend upon yearlings to carry the race schedule for them. Take a look at your club's own race results and see for yourself.

Some flyers say that yearlings do all their winning for them. However, if you ask them; how many two, three and four year old birds they have on their team, you begin to understand the true situation. They just don't have any, or only a few. They have burned out their yearlings, year after year, and as two year olds and older these birds just aren't competitive.

These flyers, instead of identifying and modifying their management problems, put a spin on it saying that the yearlings are better flyers. This is just not the case, more than likely, they just have not ruined their yearlings yet!

Regrettably, some have ruined their yearlings for racing when they were still yet youngbirds by calling upon these youngbirds to perform beyond their training and capabilities. If you don't handle your youngbirds properly, they will be a disappointment to you as yearling racers. If you don't handle you yearlings correctly, they will not win as two year olds or older. If all you want to do is win today, and won't invest in a long term program, you will probably always be a youngbirds and yearling flyer.

For those who think they need large yearling teams year after year to be competitive, I point of "Champion Breakaway" winner of 70+ races and Van Reet's "Daniel" winner of 50+ races; these were short distance racers yet they won against the largest competitions for five or more years. So, even in the short distance racing, bad management leads to yearlings being 90% of the birds entered. Yearlings are not better, they are just all that some have available to send to the races!

Therefore, it is not that flying a 600 mile race is cruel, it is that these complainers do not know how to breed, identify, train and conditions the right birds for these races. They are right to be concerned about their ability to compete; only their efforts are wasted in trying to get other flyers to abandon these races.

Instead, they should develop a strategy for success at 500 and 600 mile racing and overcome their own inadequate management methods. Even so, the complainer is a better sportsman than the flyer who sends birds to a long distance race with no idea if their birds are capable of finishing the flight.

Some with Van Loons or other traditionally labeled "shorter distance families" might claim that they do not have the birds for such racing. I find it interesting that Tony Rossi, who flies Van Loons, a family famous in Europe for winning at 60 - 180 miles, won the Midwest National 500 Mile Race with a Van Loon. The ARPU ~ 1st National Ace Pigeon Marathon Triple Crown Winner in 2002 was a Van Loon cross bred and flown by Jim & Mary Richesin. There is no better long distance bird in all of America than this bird. A determined fancier can do wonders with any family of birds given a few generations of selective breeding and keen observation.

(Note: Don't get hung up on the miles flown, what is important is the hours on the wing. In Western Washington, we would consider getting a 500 mile day bird a great accomplishment, while in Eastern Washington they often get 600 mile day birds. The weather, seasonal winds, humidity, barometric pressure, inversion layers, etc., all contribute to the harshness of a race course. Just because one race course can fly 600 mile races successfully does not mean another race course should expect the same. When scheduling your races it is the hours on the wing that defines a marathon effort not the miles flown. A blow home 600 mile winner does not outclass a 450 mile head wind winner. In my opinion, this is one mistake that the AU and IF has made in their National Awards criteria. But, that is another story.)

The classic Barcelona style for preparing birds for the race station has been to loft fly as youngbirds, race yearlings out to 195 miles, race two year olds out to 450 or possibly 500 miles and then at three years old, start sending their birds to the Barcelona race, with the expectation that these birds will compete at this race station for several years even racing as seven year olds. In fact, you cannot send yearlings to the Barcelona race, they will not allow it!

Take the 2001 Barcelona International winner: The winning bird, belonging to S. Heymann from Beesel, the Netherlands, flew 709 miles at a speed of 1375 m/m (1504 ypm) and clocking in at 5:45 AM the next morning.

Or consider: Emile Deny's “Tee” 4415211-76; who was the greatest Barcelona flyer of his era. The “Tee”, placed in the International Barcelona races 1979 - 46th, 1980 - 8th, 1981 - 102nd, and 1982 - 4th. That is right, as a six year old flyer, "Tee" won 4th International Barcelona, the Golden Wing Award of Belgium and was declared the greatest distance racer of the 5 year period, 1978 - 1982.

Or, let us consider Van der Wegen's 8310766-83 "De 66";
"De 66 Barcelona" flew Barcelona for six straight years as follows:
1985 - 545th ~ 17,060p
1986 - 677th ~ 18,176p
1987 - 446th ~ 21,545p
1988 - 47th ~ 21,194p
1989 - 2841st ~ 25,502p
1990 - 1240th ~ 28,128p

Then went on to place:

1990 - 7th ~ 10,444p Perpignan International as a seven year old, fantastic!

I wonder how many North American lofts even have a 7-year-old bird on their race team, let alone one of such great courage and stamina as the "Tee" or "De 66". Certainly, these are a different kind of racing pigeon, birds of a rich heritage and noble character.

The bottom line is that Barcelona International winners sell for as much as $150,000. The short and middle distance 1st National Ace pigeons sell for $15,000 - $30,000. Why is that? Could it be that smart pigeon flyers of Europe know the difference between winning at 200, 300 or 400 miles and winning at 600 miles? I think so!

So, when someone tells you they want to discontinue the long distance races, just realize that they are "folding" because they do not know how to breed or condition birds for these races. They are admitting that they are either unwilling or unable to compete successfully, beyond the middle distances. The worldwide trend is to acknowledge the "magnificence" of these long distance racers not eliminate them from competing.

Don't get me wrong, if these fanciers were in Europe, they could easily join a short or middle distance club and fly their system amongst many others who enjoy those same distances. But with few exceptions, here in the USA, we do not have the membership to maintain specialized clubs. In order to fly at all, we must fly all distances within our own clubs.

This creates a greater challenge for our flyers than most European flyers will ever face. However, America is known for her ability to overcome all challenges. Believe me, most Europeans would not do as well in the USA or Canada as they do in Europe. Here they would have to be good at all distances to be at the top of the championships not just good at short, middle or long but good at all distances. The USA and Canadian flyers face a greater challenge in developing successful breeding programs and training methods. We should thoroughly enjoy our different style of racing in North America, and strive to excel under our unique demographic conditions and challenging race schedules.

Keep up the good work, continue to promote the great North American tradition of long distance flying. Use GPS to better manage the races by moving the race station location (in real time) to reflect weather conditions on the day of release. Shorten or lengthen the race distance depending on your area's prevailing winds and weather conditions. Some clubs will only be able to get good returns from 500 or 550 miles, some from 600+ miles depending on the conditions of the race course. In the end, it is the hours on the wing not the airline miles that defines the effort.

In my humble opinion, there is no greater challenge nor greater satisfaction than working with long distance pigeons and seeing them home from such far away places. Keep up the good work! One hundred and twenty years of tradition precedes you and guides you in your quest!