Braving the Great Ostrich Race
I'm straddling an ostrich, gripping its wing bones like handlebars on a bike.
As we're waiting in the starting gate of the 2011 Great Ostrich Race, the 8-foot, 300-pound bird thrashes into every wall and bucks me off several times -- hardly an invitation to jockey. The tiny bird bones feel like little feather-covered pretzel sticks. Not sure why I'm prone to worry about snapping the wings off a bird that seems inclined to break every bone in my body.
People across the country flock to Arizona to witness the bareback bird and chariot races that are part of the 22nd Annual Chandler Ostrich Festival. Chad Crawford, 30, flew from Ann Arbor, Mich., to watch the spectacle. "I thought I was going to see the Kentucky Derby of ostriches," Crawford said.
Seems to be more of a rodeo -- bull-riding with belligerent birds. Armed with riding crops and protected only by jockey jackets and motorcycle helmets, my sister Katie and I race each other alongside Billy "Billy Jack the King" Webb, who's reportedly never fallen off an ostrich.
And I'm dumped off three times before I even leave the gate.
"Keep a leg on each side and your brain in the middle," advises bird-racing veteran Dustin Murley, a 6-7, 195-pound amateur mixed martial arts fighter from Oklahoma, who fell off a camel earlier that day.
"Hope to god the bird don't fall with you, hope to god you don't get bumped off cuz I'll tell you right now, it hurts like hell," says Murley, 21, adding, "You gotta be stupid to ride one of these things."
The ostrich's neck swerves around, like a preying snake or a bratty teenage girl. Reality claws at my common sense. I'm about to ride an animal with toothpick legs, a peanut-sized brain, and a penchant for pecking people in the face.
"Almost as mean as a woman," chimes in Freddy Wilmoth, 51, who hoisted me atop the savage bird.
"I pity the ostrich that tries pecking me in the face," Katie says, the riding crop secured around her wrist.
At this point, you'd rather be doing your taxes, batting beehives or cage-fighting Dustin Murley. But I push past self-preservation, inhale and try reassuring my bird. "Niiice ostrich," I say, like I'm some sort ostrich whisperer.
Banjo music blaring, the guns fire, the gates swing open and my sister spills five feet from the starting line, dragging the ostrich down to the dirt with her.
But I'm flying.
The crowd of over 500 people is cheering and I'm feeling like the imaginary jockey battle star of the greatest ostrich racing movie never made. About 150 feet from the gate, I'm tossed off -- crushing one side of my body and face-planting the ground.
Webb blazes to victory.
Dust myself off. Twist my neck. Check for teeth. Busting headache and blood running down my cheek, I agree to race again.
Second time around, you want to wrangle the ostrich by the neck, pull a line from Mike Tyson and eat its offspring. Aunts, uncles, second cousins ...
The Travel Channel's Bert Kreischer, aka "Bert the Conqueror," ate ostrich meat for lunch and feared his race bird would smell the burger on his breath when he competed in chariot races. I had no such fear.
For the second race, Murley reminds me, "Get on and hold on. Lean back." But you can't tell where the bird's back stops, so you clutch the wings and brace for what could be a 40 mph ride.
Out of the gate, Katie's ostrich collides with mine nearly 10 feet from the start and we both fall backward off our animals, gaining deep purple bruises and a pile of feathers.
"Wicked winged creature," Katie says, removing her boot to assess her ankle. "I'd ride a bull, a bear, or a rhino before I'd ever ride an ostrich again. Absolutely terrifying."
But not everyone emerges relatively unscathed from the races, including Steve Boger, the 57-year-old owner of Ham Bone Express, the business that supplies the ostriches for the races. He claims to have cracked two ribs during the first race, wrapped his stomach with horse gauze and kept competing. "Old man's still got it," Boger said.
Despite reports of bruises and broken bones, Chad Lemaster, a 31-year old mortgage banker from Glendale, Ariz., decides to ride; confident from driving four-wheelers and having a "good center of gravity."
"I'm going to ride that baby like a Harley," he said. "Take her out for a Saturday cruise."
Lemaster flies out of the gate, flips over the front of the ostrich and eats dirt nearly 10 feet from the starting line.
"That bird did not want me riding it," Lemaster later said, laughing and rubbing his back.
Worldwide, ostrich races are most popular in South Africa, with competitions also held in Memphis, Tenn., for the Delta Fair and Music Festival.