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Eric Shackle Writes: Racing Sheep

Eric Shackle brings you news that will forever change the way you think about sheep.

For more of Eric's hugely informative and entertaining article, click on http://www.bdb.co.za/shackle

Champion racehorses burst from their starting boxes and charge towards the finish line, eager to win. Racing sheep, by contrast, usually prefer to amble. That's why horse races are more popular than sheep races.

The problem of tardy sheep is so serious that it has even been discussed in Parliament. Addressing fellow members of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly three years ago, Richard Torbay MP said:

Each year Rothschild Road in Emmaville is cleared for the sheep race, the income from which supports the town's museum.
Approximately 100 sheep are entered into the one kilometre race. Each wears a coat with a number and the local people pay $5 a head to enter. First prize is $100.

The sheep charge down the street, chased by sheep dogs. Last year was a bit of a spine-tingler, because none of them wanted to cross the finish line.

On the same day the school organises a triathlon and barbecue lunch, with another barbecue at night.

(If the sheep were warned before the race that the losers would be barbecued, that would be an incentive for them to run faster.)

After last year's event, ABC radio presenter Ellen Geraghty reported:

The little town of Emmaville was a hive of activity on Saturday for the 4th annual Mining Museum Sheep Race. The race is famous for its very slow pace and usually uncooperative sheep. The whole town had a bet on the race and most of them were there to see the finish.
...Kay Scroeder, treasurer of the Emmaville Mining Museum, explains, "the sheep were coming along great until they nearly got to the finish line, we had sets of yards each side of the road to keep the sheep from running into people, and they just about got there and a couple of sheep decided that they weren't coming in, so they turned around and bolted, hit the back of the yards, busted the yards open, and just about finished back at the starting line again!"

Until a few weeks ago, we'd never heard of sheep races. Then, one day, we heard ABC radio presenter Scott Levi talking about the Booligal Cup. We turned to the internet for more details and found a rural website, VisitHay, which said:

Booligal Sheep Races. Even the sheep dress up for the occasion.
The inaugural Booligal Sheep Races were held in 1998 when locals decided to have a bit of fun and light relief from the grim prospects of drought and low commodity prices. Patrons were encouraged to bring along their merino wether and enter him in The Booligal Cup.

The yearly event has now developed into the main event on the region's social calendar and into a national (if not international) event. It has become a major fundraiser for local charities in the tiny township of Booligal...

2003 winner: 100 Merino wethers compete for the Booligal Cup and the fantastic prizes on offer. With great sponsorship the Cup has a purse of $500 along with the prestigious trophy (an antique drench gun mounted on a red gum block).

Fashions on the Field are restricted to the sheep... Past entries have included "Thorpeedo" (a sheep in a black speedo swim suit), numerous versions of "Priscilla Queen of the Desert", The Runaway Bride, and rugby champions parading their favourite jumpers and colours.

Sheep races are also popular attractions in the United Kingdom. "Twelve woolly-minded athletes are in training for the race of their lives," Sophie Hazan reported last month on the website LeedsToday, adding:

The competitors are a dozen highly agile sheep preparing to do ovine athletic battle at a famous North Yorkshire sheep fair. The Wensleydale and Jacob breeds have been hand picked for the 200 yard sweepstake dash which has become a popular feature of Masham Sheep Fair, near Ripon...

The chosen flock were selected by founder and organiser of the show Susan Cunliffe-Lister. "Only the fittest ones are chosen for the races and we have been putting them through their paces ahead of the event," she said.

The sheep are tempted to run for the finishing line by one of the organisers rattling feed in a bucket ahead of the flock... Backers get caught up in the excitement as the race gets under way, cheering their sometimes reluctant choices to the line, although some sheep have been known to stop for a graze on the way.

Even the foot and mouth crisis three years ago did not prevent the show from going ahead although contestants displayed cardboard cut-out sheep or models. But even that was a crowd puller.

Then, at last, we found someone who has managed to persuade sheep to run like racehorses. He's Rick Turner, owner of The Big Sheep Entertainment Park in Bideford (pronounced Biddy-ford), Devon, England. Sheep races are a popular daily feature there, attracting more than 100,000 visitors a year.

Rick claims one of his sheep established a world record in June 2001 by covering the 220-yard course (which includes a "ewe-turn") in a near-unbelievable time: just 17 seconds. "That's faster than any Olympic sprinter can run," he said.

Asked the secret of his success, Rick told us by e-mail:

Our special Friesland milking sheep from Holland, with long legs and slim build, are the greediest and fastest in the world, and are ideal as racers.

Twice a day the sheep run down the course to be milked, so they are very familiar with it. They can be seen training on the gallops about 6.30 am. every day. Because the greediest sheep normally wins, one of the best indicators for a fine racing sheep is a big belly, although of course that's also a handicap.

Obviously, like all racing, the going does vary from one day to the next, and the state of the course does affect the times. The sheep don't like racing in the wet and the knitted jockeys have been known to fall off as the sheep try to shake off the rain.

There's often a water jump in wet weather and even though most of the course has an asphalt surface, it can often get quite muddy and slippery.

The jockeys were designed and made by Anne Murray, a designer knitter who is more used to sending her special knitwear throughout the world. They are made and stuffed with 100% wool, are light and move with an urging motion. They are considerably lighter than the sheep's own fleece. They are apt to take on a rather drunken pose when wet, and will sometimes stretch.

Our sheep race commentator is an ex-Aussie, Tony Rea, from Londonderry, NSW, who played cricket with Mark and Steve Waugh in a State under 21 team some years ago.

Not surprisingly, New Zealand, whose 45 million sheep outnumber the human population by more than 11 to one, is also planning to hold a sheep race early next year. The New Zealand Woollymunchers Fine Wine and Lambfest at Chertsey (South Island) has included an inaugural sheep race in its program for January 8, 2005. Eight rams will compete in three races on a 40-metre track.

"Those who attend the festival will have the chance to have a flutter on the woolly speedsters," said the Ashburton Guardian. "Events such as this, and Mayfield's pig racing, always prove popular with spectators."


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