Exotic races draw overflow crowd

It takes a special person to climb atop a gangly, long-necked ostrich and somehow direct it toward a finish line.

But that’s what five men did Saturday night — or at least attempted to do — at the Fair Grounds Race Course where, as part of a special night of racing, zebras and ostriches were trucked in from Kansas to entertain an overflow crowd of spectators.

In the ostrich race, five of the fowl lined up in the gates, ridden by a quintet of volunteers who weren’t quite sure what they were in for. The riders included Adrian Bennet, a horse exerciser at the Fair Grounds who rode Feather Duster, or at least planned to ride the bird.

When the gates opened, Bennet slipped off his mount and had little choice but to hold onto the bird’s reins and run alongside it as it trotted to the finish line while the four other feathered mounts whizzed past him.

After the race, Bennet could only laugh about the experience.

“Now I can say I rode a chicken,” he said. “We finished the race, and that’s all that matters. Have fun and finish the race.”

The ostrich race, which was dubbed the Struthio Stakes, featured birds with names suggested by fans on Facebook.

The contest was won by an actual thoroughbred jockey at the Fair Grounds, Denny Velazquez, who piloted Nom de Plumage to the title.

The zebra race, dubbed the Zebra Zip, included four of the striped quadrupeds and was won by Replacement Ref — so named because football officials, like zebras, wear black and white stripes. Replacement Ref was ridden by Dane Noel.

But the zebra contest didn’t exactly go off without a hitch. Two of the animals left the gates early and tried to buck their riders, including That’s the Fact Jack (named after a famous line from the Bill Murray movie “Stripes”), who at first wasn’t too pleased that Fair Grounds valet and exerciser Jermal “Pedey” Landry was on his back.

“Not too many people get to say they rode a zebra,” Landry said after the contest. “I got an offer to do it, and I took it. It was harder than I thought it would be.”

Saturday’s crowd — which filled the Fair Grounds’ grandstands and lined the track-side fence five deep — held cameras and phones in the air to get video of the wackiness.

“Can you believe the crowd here for this?” said Falvey Fox Jr., who accompanied his son, Falvey Fox III, to the races. “This is like (the audiences for) the Louisiana Derby and Thanksgiving Day. For here, it’s a huge crowd. People will come here to watch anything race. It’s marketing genius. People just love the novelty of it.”

The younger Fox also enjoyed the show.

“It was really cool,” he said. “It was funny.”

He said he enjoyed the ostrich race better because the big birds seemed to know what they were doing more than the zebras.

“After they broke from the gate, they were running real smooth,” he said.

Also attending Saturday’s festivities was Brenda Gilbert, who was accompanied by her 1-year-old son, Brennan, and her mother, Joyce Cincore.

“I thought it would be something different to see,” she said. “It’s really crazy. It’s exciting.”

The animals are owned and trained by Joe Hedrick, whose company, Hedrick’s Promotions Inc., is based in Nickerson, Kan. Hedrick travels the country with various members of his Midwest menagerie, putting on shows like the one Saturday at the Fair Grounds.

“We go around and entertain people,” said Hedrick, who brought ostriches and camels for a similar show at the Fair Grounds last summer. “What’s a more perfect thing than that?”

He said that he’s used to seeing the type of fan turnouts like the one Saturday.

“Honestly, this is what we expect,” he said. “Everywhere we go, we have a huge crowd, because (exotic animal racing) is so unusual.”

But as far as what the animals do once the gates open, well, that’s a different story.

“I always tell people to expect the unexpected,” he said with a grin.