Give Him the Bird

Page 3 of 5

Although fabulous riches await the fastest birds, pigeon racing -- at least among serious practitioners -- can be an expensive hobby to enter into. It can deplete your wallet before the starting gun even sounds. Entry fees for the races vary, but most major events these days charge about $1,000 per bird. Then, once the birds arrive, a local trainer must be hired to teach them to return to a nearby loft, an expense that tacks on another couple of hundred bucks. When all of the loft fees and handling charges are added up, it is not unusual for each pigeon entered in a race to cost $3,000.

Indeed, for those who are serious about it, pigeon racing can be nearly as dear an avocation as thoroughbred horse racing. Well-bred birds, purchased directly for racing or for breeding, typically cost thousands of dollars, and prices can soar much higher. This past winter a California fancier paid $30,000 for a single bird. In England recently, one pigeon sold for $202,000.

That explains why, while there are still pigeon racers who enter many of the big races for prestige and fun, these days most are simply after the money. The prizes for winning pigeons have skyrocketed in response. The top prize in Detroit this year will be $30,000 -- a fairly modest amount compared to some other races. In Las Vegas, the first bird home earns its owner $150,000. Top prize for a California race scheduled for this summer is $100,000. And the 400-mile Million Dollar Race, in South Africa, boasts a top reward of $200,000.

That doesn't include the betting that goes on, either. Racers can earn many times their prize money by betting on birds in a side pool. Last year one of Adugalski's pigeons came in second place in a race in Maryland. He took home $8,000 in prize money -- and $14,000 from the $950 bet he placed on his bird. "Of course, I cover my pigeons heavy," Adugalski says.

Truth be told, there have been times when he has covered the pigeons a little too heavy. Last year he won about $55,000 -- but posted a year-end profit of only $12,000. "Maybe," Adugalski suggests, "I do a little too much." He has been known to bet $2,000 to $3,000 on a single bird in one race. Last year he bet $2,000 on one pigeon, and it never showed up -- eaten by a predator, perhaps, or a victim of bad weather.

Still, all in all, he has fared at least as well as other fanciers who wager heavily on birds. "If you gamble on pigeons and you get 50 percent back, you are doing well," he says. "And if you get back 100 percent, you are doing damn well. I've done that for ten years now."

But to a person driven to succeed like Adam Adugalski, breaking even offers only so much satisfaction, and so he hopes 2000 will be different. Merely getting his money back, he has decided, will not do anymore. This year he will scale back from about thirty big races and instead concentrate on only a handful -- only the biggest-money contests.

"And I will win," he says. "I know that."

It's been nearly six weeks now, and I'm getting tired of playing the governor's little games.

I place another call to Wadhams, who -- naturally -- is not at his phone. "Look," I say, "I'm beginning to think that you and the governor are ducking me on this pigeon-racing thing. We're in the middle of the spring racing season" -- of course Owens will know this, but Wadhams is probably clueless.

There must be someone remotely connected with the governor's office who will talk candidly about his alleged pigeon jones. But who?

"Hmmm. It well could be," says Dick Lamm from his office at the University of Denver. "But he's never mentioned it to me. Then again, I've really just gotten to know Bill Owens recently."

I persist. "Have you ever seen any pigeons flying around the mansion?"

"No. No, I really haven't," the former governor says. "But I would admire someone who would do something like that. Mr. Owens is a very multifaceted man. Is there anything else?"

"Um, no," I say. "That's all."

One reason that Adugalski fully intends to win a half-million dollars this year is that he has vowed to bet only on his birds -- the pigeons and their descendants he has carefully bred over the past decade. "Before," he says, "I used to bet on any bird, like this" -- here he simulates a card-dealing motion, peeling money off a wad and throwing bills everywhere. "But now I will trust only my own birds."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer