Race Directors Report

Race Directors Report – SAMDPR 2017

The 21st South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race will go down as a year of firsts; the first year at our new lofts at Heron Banks Golf and River Resort and our first hosting of the race weekend at Emerald Casino and Resort.

There were also a few less obvious firsts, but these too have had a huge impact on the race and event. These include things like our first live broadcast with coverage from the lofts, welcoming three new staff members to their first year at the lofts, introducing the Hold Back Listing and making use of YouTube’s new live broadcasting platform.

It’s also the first year that the race had to be postponed due to rain and the first year there was no auction of the top pigeons the following day.

The Run Up to the SAMDPR 2017

From early February 2016 planning of the new lofts at Heron Banks and hosting the Race Weekend at the Vaal started. On face value the idea seems simple to move an event from one location to another, however the reality of planning, funding and executing the idea turned out to be a worthy challenge.

After the excitement of moving the pigeon lofts to an area more suitable for pigeon racing passed, the daunting reality of turning an empty field next to the Vaal River with no water supply, sanitation or electricity into a world class pigeon loft sank in.

One by one the challenges were addressed and solutions found and slowly but surely the pigeon lofts started to rise from the ground and become what they are today. There were some setbacks, such as a huge old tree falling over and flattening the new fence and gate just installed, but no build is without these challenges.

Like any “new build” we are far from finished as we have plans to extend the site in the coming years adding things like visitor areas, parking lots, gardens etc. For this year, our focus was on the pigeons and the lofts and making sure they are the best in the world.

The Race Weekend

One of the opportunities a new venue has is the chance to do things differently and this year that is exactly what we did by adding additional functions to the race weekend.

On Wednesday evening, we added a cruise down the Vaal River, made spectacular by an African sunset with shades of reds oranges and blues reflected on the clouds. This informal evening gave fanciers who had travelled from far and wide a chance to relax and unwind and enjoy the scenic areas around the Vaal River.

Thursday morning, before most visitors had had their first cup of coffee, the loft staff loaded the pigeons into the transporter ready for the short road trip to the Events Arena at Emerald Casino where basketing was to take place.

At 12:00 sharp, the mammoth task of basketing the pigeons under the guidance of independent auditors started. For those who do not know what this involves; every pigeon is inspected, its details verified, one wing is stamped, the identity ring resealed and the pigeon placed into a specially designed racing basket. It does not sound like much but do it for 2432 pigeons and why this process takes five hours becomes clear. The consensus was clear; the pigeons are in great health and well prepared for the race! I would like to give a word of thanks to all those who travelled to help with basketing.

Once basketing was completed and the pigeons loaded back onto the transporter, our guests at Emerald were supposed to be treated to a bushveld braai, barbeque to the rest of the world, however heavy rains earlier in the week had made the area a muddy swamp, so the braai was moved to Breeze Restaurant where they were treated to some excellently prepared eats.

Behind the scenes, the admin team where watching the weather forecasts with eagle eyes. As a South African amid the worst drought in many years normally I welcome rain, but as the Race Director my hope was that it would hold off and some forecasts showed that this was going to happen.

In the early hours of Friday morning the pigeon transporter left the Vaal and started their journey down to Colesberg for the planned liberation. Just after 09:00 the transporter arrived in Bloemfontein, where the pigeons were presented with food and water while the team consisting of Corrie Naude, Josef Bekker and Dr Stephan Steyn had a much-needed coffee and bite to eat. As always one eye was kept on the weather and although no rain was encountered, the team reported strong head winds for most of the journey. Later in the afternoon Corrie and the team arrived safely in Colesberg where they once again presented the pigeons with water and settled down for the night. By this stage the weather forecasts had changed and it was decided that everyone would be up at 03:00 to check the actual weather. Many thanks to SANPO Vice President, George Le Roux, who contacted various pigeon fanciers along the flight path to get on the ground accounts of the weather.

Friday saw the start of the new SAMDPR Fishing and Golf Competition and great fun was had by all that took part in these competitions. Congratulations to Andy Skwiat for winning the fishing competition with a 2.57kg carp and to Paul Smith and Sara Blackshaw for winning the Golf Competition.

On Friday evening, guests were officially welcomed to the Race Weekend and enjoyed a selection of finger foods and desserts expertly prepared by the chefs at Emerald Casino. The atmosphere at the Welcome Function was filled with nervous excitement; with the weather the major topic of conversation, would it be tail or head winds, would there be rain, how hot would it be? As Race Director I assured everyone, that come early hours of Saturday morning, we would evaluate the actual weather and decide what was best for the pigeons, as after all it is because of our love of these feathered miracles that we are all at the SAMDPR.

At 03:30 a call from Corrie Naude on Saturday morning set the tone for the rest of the day; “It rained through the night and it’s still raining.”

One thing the past years has taught me is that weather forecasts cannot be trusted and as such I generally make use of five or six different forecasting models and from those try and get an accurate idea of what is happening. Three of the forecasts showed no rain, one a possibility of rain and the fifth one that it was indeed raining. At 04:20 a phone call was made to George Le Roux in Bloemfontein to find out the actual weather on the ground. George confirmed it had rained most of the night but at that stage it was not raining although the clouds were still heavy. Corrie and I then decided to pack up and start bringing the pigeons back to Springfontein and check if the weather there was suitable.

At Springfontein it was still raining and it was decided to move on to the next point. More phone calls to George confirmed that it was still not raining in Bloemfontein and the weather radar maps showed a gap in weather just south of Bloemfontein. Tromsburg and Edenburg also proved to be impossible for liberation as it was still raining and the transporter had travelled through rain along the route. By this time, it was 08:00 and the decision was made to drive to Bloemfontein and make a final decision as to the course of action to take.

We have never in the history of the SAMDPR had to postpone a main race due to rain, but ultimately the best interest of the pigeons has to be taken into account, no matter what we have planned or how many fanciers have gathered to watch the main race. The pigeons always have and always will come first.

At approximately 09:00 the call came in that it had started raining in Bloemfontein and we officially announced that the main race had been postponed. Having fanciers from all over the world and a venue prepared for the main race, Air Sport Internationale decided to, at the very least, try and have something for the fanciers gathered to enjoy and as such a Bonus Training flight was planned and prizes offered to the first 10 pigeons. Exhibitors present in the Emerald Arena joined in the fun and added sponsored prizes for the first pigeons. However, the weather decided not to play along and liberation point after liberation point was dismissed as it was still raining and at 14:00 the final call to bring the pigeons back to the lofts was made.

With this unprecedented decision, we prepared ourselves for the response from our entrants and those gathered. We were and still are overwhelmed by the immensely positive reaction received from all over the world, but thinking back about it, we are pigeon fanciers, pigeon lovers and pigeon breeders. We race and keep pigeons not for the fame and glory or monetary reward, but for the love of the pigeons.

Late in the afternoon impromptu meetings took place between technical staff, the event hosts and the pigeon trainers and loft staff. We knew what needed to be done and the SAMDPR admin machine kicked into gear, looking at every aspect and working out the solution.

To the hundreds of fanciers who still joined us at Emerald Casino to enjoy the day and be part of pigeon day, I thank you for your support and I am proud to be part of this huge pigeon family. This spirit of comradery showed itself once again as the Awards Dinner was quickly changed into a celebration of our 21st Anniversary and everyone enjoyed the evening until late into the night.

Sunday was once again spent in meetings as finer details of plans hatched the day before were turning into reality. Naturally the exact day to hold the main race was a huge topic of discussion and the services of a meteorologist was enlisted to assist us. After much deliberation Wednesday was selected as the weather forecast looked promising, with a possibility of Thursday if needed as a backup.

On Monday morning after yet another weather check, it was decided to re-basket the pigeons for the race. This modified basketing procedure was controlled by the auditors and went smoothly in the presence of a few international observers. At this basketing it was decided that two pigeons that had returned to the lofts late Thursday afternoon would be added to the pigeons competing in the main race. In fairness to all, the rest of the pigeons that had been judged to be not in a condition to compete were also checked and unfortunately none of these could be added.

Behind the scenes the SAMDPR admin team worked hard through Monday and Tuesday to arrange seating, catering, security, broadcasts and transport for those who wanted to attend the event at the lofts. Huge thanks from my side to all who helped with this.

Bright and early on Tuesday morning Corrie, Willi and Josef left for Colesberg with camera team in tow. The trip down was uneventful and once again a stop in Bloemfontein was made to present the pigeons with food and water. Corrie reported that the weather was good and that no rain had been encountered along the route. Safe in the knowledge that the weather was good, we all settled into our beds and waited for the big day to now take place.

The Race

Long before dawn on Wednesday, Corrie, who had been joined by Pedrie van der Merwe of SANPO, phoned to say it was raining in Colesberg and had rained during the night. I cannot put into words the disappointment that call brought with it, but within minutes’ computers were online, weather forecasts checked and calls to fanciers on the ground made. Looking at the satellite images a huge front had moved over the country overnight, but the good news was that as the evening progressed the front had dissipated and would continue to do so during the day. At 04:40 Corrie decided to move the pigeons east to Gariep Dam where the weather was clear.

At 06:40 the pigeons were liberated from Orange County Lodge at the edge of the Gariep Dam in cool conditions and a partly cloudy sky and with a very light head wind. The race was on and the pigeons started their journey of 493km back to the lofts. Corrie and the film crew reported that the pigeons exited the transporter, circled and broke into two packs heading home.

At 10:00 we all gathered at the pigeon lofts at Heron Banks and started the wait for the pigeons to arrive safely home. As always eager eyes were on the sky and continuous weather updates from the transporter reported no rain along the flight path and that for the first three hours the pigeons had flown in virtually wind free conditions which changed to a light tail wind just after Bloemfontein, approximately 300km from the pigeon lofts.

The vibe at gazebo at the lofts was electric with many fanciers having taken leave to be part of the day. Speculation was rife as to what time the pigeons would arrive and who would be the winner. Just after 13:50 the answer was close at hand when a lone blue checker appeared over the lofts and landed on the roof of the office building. Hearts beat faster, blood pressure rose, nerves took hold, as the little hen held the fanciers gaze captive.

Just as the little Blue Check decided to fly down to the roof of the pigeon loft, four more pigeons appeared on the horizon, circled and landed in front of the loft entrance. This convinced the Blue Check to fly down and join her team mates and for a few moments the five pigeons sat, almost teasing the crowd, but a little Blur Bar hen decided she has had enough fun with the crowd and walked into the lofts; followed shortly by the other four pigeons, including the little Blue Check.

Time seems to stand still and minutes feel like hours as the electronic timing system reads the electronic tag, the computers transmits the data to the internet and the server matches up the electronic tag to a pigeon. In reality this all takes less than a minute and once processed Little Miss Nikki, bred and entered by Tom Schilling from the USA was announced at the winner of the 21st South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race in a time of seven hours, sixteen minutes and nine seconds.

Remarkably Little Miss Nikki was also the first pigeon in the Knock Out Competition and in the Zandy Meyer Memorial Car Race Nomination, making her the single biggest winner in the history of the SAMDPR, winning over $325 000.00 in prizes, not including the prize won in the second Hot Spot Car Race; a truly memorable achievement!

Second was a Light Check named Sunce bred and entered by Gabriel Valo of Germany five seconds later, and third position was awarded to Team Hooymans of the Netherlands bred by Jan Hooymans with his pigeon Hali a further 7 seconds later.

But what about the little Blue Check? Well after studying photographs and watching the video feed, Puggle from Germany, racing for Team GSA and bred by Siegbert Wandrach was placed fourth!

Excitement from the mainly South African contingent gathered at the lofts was evident when fifth place was awarded to a South African pigeon named Rene entered by Cradock Homing Society and bred by Pieter Joubert.

The rest of the afternoon was perfect pigeon racing weather and by the end of the day 288 pigeons had returned to the lofts; unfortunately, this includes a few pigeons which had to be defaulted due to non-payment of the entry fees by their entrants. By 06:08 the following morning the top 300 positions had been filled and pigeons continued to return to the lofts on a regular basis throughout the day.

From all of us at the SAMDPR I would like to congratulate the breeders of the winning pigeons in this year’s SAMDPR.

The postponement of the auction on the Sunday has also given us a unique opportunity to host an online auction for the top pigeons. This online portion of the auction will run until 24 February 2017 where after a live auction will take place.

In conclusion

As I said at the start of this report, it’s been a year of firsts, but it’s also been an incredible year of big and small achievements, not only by the pigeons, but by the support staff that is behind the SAMDPR.

There are so many individuals that have made the race possible this year, but I would like to extend a heartfelt thanks to all the staff of the SAMDPR, the management of SANPO, the incredible team from Big Brave Digital and Shine Interactive, the staff and managers of Emerald Casino and Resort and Gary Lance of Heron Banks golf and River Resort as well as friends and family who without a second thought dropped everything to assist with the race.

Lastly and by no means least, I would like to thank the entrants in the SAMDPR, as it is them that make everything we have achieved possible and everything we are still to achieve. I look forward to seeing our huge pigeon family again next year.

All the best,

Michael Holt

Race Director

South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race.

Heron Banks Golf and River Estate Emerald Casino Benzing Medpet
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