By Jim Jenner
We envy Europe for its legendary release stations and more than a century and a half of racing history. But they had a great start in the late 1800’s. New railroads, modern timing clocks and a population that wasn’t watching TV or going to soccer games made for a booming sport.
Belgium stands out because they had about a quarter million lofts, including one owned by the King, racing into an area smaller than the state of Maryland. Wouldn’t our friends in D.C. & Baltimore love that? As the Belgian’s release stations went further and further South it became easier to have a true national winner because all of the pigeons faced the same conditions for the bulk of the race before vagaries of wind affected the final miles.
We all know how iconic Barcelona has become in the annals of long distance racing. But the ancient Spanish city wasn’t always a pigeon racing legend. For many years St. Vincent in France was a much more notable station than Barcelona. And if you have heard of races from Pau, Tarbes, Lourdes or Toulous, you are talking about a string of towns running east to west along the bottom of France. For example St. Vincent, Pau and Tarbes are only about ten miles apart. So why have we heard so much about these legendary stations if their distance from Northern Europe is so similar? What do they have in common? Each of those towns is as far as you can travel South until you run into this land mass called the Pyrenees. On the French side these mountains quickly rise to ten thousand feet and continue for sixty to 100 miles south until they gradually slope down into the Mediterranean.
We’ve heard of those towns in Southern France because for most of the first century of pigeon racing that was as far as anyone could imagine sending a homing pigeon. The coast of Spain? Forget it.
It wasn’t until after the end of the Second World War that Barcelona became a credible race station. And it struggled for years to survive. Low entries and the cost of transport threatened the event and by 1956 less than 1,000 birds competed. Then, blessed by better promotion, that number tripled in 1957 and the race was won by a German fancier. Two years later the Dutch entered for the first time, in spite of predictions that no birds could fly that far into Northern Europe. So not only was Barcelona becoming a true international event but, when the Dutch won it in 1961, it became obvious the station was not a slam dunk for any country in the race.
Some international results in the 60’s shocked the pigeon world. The same Belgian cock bird won in 1962 and again in 1963 against over 3,000 birds each time. And another Belgian pigeon took second in 1963 and then won the following year.
Fifty years later we can only imagine the noise if a bird did that today with entries of some 20,000 pigeons and when a winner can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars out of Asia. Barcelona has become that legendary in every corner of the pigeon racing world.
What we take for granted today, as an icon, wasn’t always so. Bluntly put Barcelona took balls and an attitude that not only could your pigeons make it, they would be better for it. In an era when we’re happy to race with what the hawks leave us and it’s hard to find a driver for a 500 mile event, it’s important to remember that. So many of the great strains we honor today were born in the Pyrennes.
North America never enjoyed the advantages they have in Europe. Their density of fanciers, the involvement of Royalty and the ability to have true national and international events are powerful forces. We have always had our regional hotbeds but nothing that could be called a national event. However when the boys in California dreamed up the idea of a one loft race in the 1970’s that gave us all a chance to see how our birds fared against a wide variety of other breeder’s pigeons. And, as I featured in my last film, we have also perfected the idea of a magnet club. Spring Hill, Florida is a bright spot in a continent with dwindling club members and a hobby beset by animal rights fanatics and government control of your back yard.
So we’ve entered a new age when you can move somewhere and race all you want. Or you can hang back, breed and ship off a bunch of young birds, and party like a rock star when you visit these one loft events that are sprouting like mushrooms across our fair land.
But if you are a true student of the game, a breeder/handler interested in racing where you already live, and you want to see how your pigeons do at the distance, your prospects may be dwindling. Unless you live in a region with a driving force like Dusan Smetana.
You may have heard of Dusan and the Western Open he created. Gene Yoes did a wonderful story in 2009 explaining the genesis of the race and quite a bit about Dusan. Steve Lawler weighed in with another nice piece in 2015 in these pages and was an advocate for helping get Northwest clubs to take part.
I got involved because Dusan is the first pigeon guy I met when I moved to Montana. I was amused to see an ad for a racing pigeon club in the “Mini Nickel” and called the number. A thick Czech accent was on the other end. We talked and then I visited. Dusan is a handsome, gangly guy with a mass of tousled dark hair and a quiet demeanor. It took a while for me to extract the salient info on his life.
At 15 he applied to leave communist Czechoslovakia and visit the USA [in your dreams kid!]. His pigeon passion was already going strong. Not from family connections but from older, local kids managing to get enough pigeon food from the government to feed small lofts and race. You can imagine how poor and rustic things were for those fanciers when Dusan relates he was popular because he could ride a bike fast. As in “take this countermark kid and ride to the center of town” where the club had a single timing clock. This is not Belgium in the 1870’s. It’s a Czech mountain town a hundred years later.
Then, as the iron curtain was beginning to fray, Dusan talked a local official into granting him a precious permit to travel. At 21, pretty much fresh off a tractor in Eastern Europe, he landed in Florida. He took any job he could while he learned English.
“I went to class in the day and cleaned at Walmart all night. I couldn’t speak English but I could speak mop.” Dusan explains, smiling.
After a year in this tropical land of fast cars and gold chains Dusan longed for more familiar terrain. His english teacher told him about a woman traveling to Bozeman, Montana, with her two kids and he talked his way into the journey in the spring of 1993.
“I always wanted to see Montana. I love the name Montana.” he explains.
Bozeman had plenty of work for a 20-something with a green card and farm and forest experience. Two meetings proved important for Dusan. One came while he was renting a house that was on the market. When a couple came by to look at it Dusan struck up a conversation that got him invited to the couple’s home for a meal. There he discovered the host was a wildlife photographer, just returned from a trip to Alaska. On the spot Dusan decided he wanted to do the same job. I’m not making this up. From a standing start he bought a camera and proceeded to become one of the top wildlife shooters in the West.
He remembers selling two photos to Field & Stream in 1996 for $900. and after that it is a kind of a blur. He’s had work on the cover and inside of every major wildlife magazine and wisely got into calendar work early in his career.
A second, even more significant meeting was when he met a friend’s girlfriend’s sister, Lorca. They hit it off, married and now have two delightful children, an eleven year old boy, Misa and his nine year old sister Natalia. If you have seen my movie “Young Wings’ you know the kids. We filmed them playing in the river bottom near their home where Lorca gives them the freedom so few kids enjoy anymore. She is a lovely, calm and competent person and Dusan would tell her stories of pigeon keeping in his native country. Unbeknownst to Dusan, Lorca sought out a local pigeon club and took him to a meeting. Until then he had no idea anyone raced pigeons in Big Sky country.
The couple were building their first home in 2004 and Dusan went back to the bank to borrow more money for pigeon loft lumber. Typical of Dusan he soon excelled with the little Bozeman club. In those days they flew from the West, almost to Seattle, and the members included several ministers and a retired police chief. He also figured out how to bring in some long distance blood, still in the shell, from a good friend back in Czechoslovakia. However, after several successful years he was becoming bored by simple club racing.
That’s when Dusan’s can-do spirit and relations with flyers in Idaho were a catalyst for what became the Western Open. It’s a simple idea. Go to the middle of the Western States and let your pigeons go. There are six sections from 100+, 200+, 300+, 400+, 500+ and 600+ miles. There is no entry fee. Any state in the Pacific or Mountain time zone could theoretically enter. There are two Nevada stations, starting with Winnemuca on Memorial weekend and another three weeks later from Carson City. It’s truly an open. Pigeons have to go in a half dozen routes the instant they leave their crates. They face mountains in every direction.
So, let’s be clear. There is no “line”. They have to immediately head for home, whether that be Southern California, Spokane or central Montana. There are no followers in this pigeon race. These are rock-solid, bad ass, find-their-way-from-anywhere, long distance homing pigeons my friend.
Since its inception in 2010, to last year’s race with over1,000 birds from seven states in the air, this new event has captured the imagination of many Western fanciers. It’s not for everyone because many fliers today have forgotten the genesis of the greatest families was long distance flying, and that the sport was founded on testing the limits of Columba Livia. But, for those who remember, or think their pigeons might have what it takes, it’s a special event.
I gave you some background on Dusan because I’m not sure many people could pull off what he has done with this race. You can tell by his bio that he doesn’t let much stand in his way. As a filmmaker I can assure you that professional wildlife photographers are methodical. He’s kept the organization intact and efficient. And he has an unassuming charm that helps people get along and want to help him make things happen.
When it first started Dusan himself told me he didn’t know if he was crazy for advocating this race. His own pigeons would be flying over 600 miles through the Rockies from North Central Nevada. When he got six hens, on the day, on the drop, in that first race he had his answer.
I’m asked to sponsor a lot of pigeon events and have seen a lot of them come and go. But, when Dusan asked me to share my thoughts on this race I was happy to do it because it seems to be on pretty solid footing. And, with all due respect to the legendary open races of the Mid-West and the Eastern seaboard and South, in terms of North America pigeon racing this one has something the others don’t contend with, huge mountains.
Barcelona only became what it is when long distance dreamers like Dusan upped the stakes and sent their best farther than they thought they could go. Basically on the other side of a barrier they thought would spell doom. We all know the pigeons not only made it, but the genetic pool got a booster shot from those European risk takers in the 50’s and 60’s.
Whether it’s the Rockies, the Sierras, the Cascades or a little gem like Death Valley it’s all on the menu in this race. Dusan shares with amazement that he clocked birds in Montana only minutes before birds landed in San Diego more than 1,100 miles away. When you think of adding live clocking to a race with a thousand mile front it’s kind of mind boggling.
When Dusan talks about long distance pigeons I feel like I’m in Belgium a quarter century ago. He barely medicates and he’s had incredible success building a family that religiously navigates hundreds of miles of mountains. He sounds like Ad Schaerlaeckens, one of his heroes, when he advocates that hardy, naturally immune pigeons leave the medicated masses when the going gets tough. The fact he took the first three places this year, and has always been at the top since the first Open would seem to bear this theory out.
Back in the day it was names like Vanbruane and Desmet that proved 600 miles over mountains was possible for their pigeons. I’m sure they had to work at it to breed and train birds for this incredible feat. But they did it. And that same thing is happening with Dusan Smetana and the dozens of other long distance men and women willing to put their birds to a test that is every bit the equal of Barcelona.
Today, with many North American competitions shrinking, or fanciers pulling back to become young bird breeders and “infrequent” flyers, a challenge like the Western Open, or any open race, is refreshing.
To me it’s one of the greatest races in the world from the standpoint of terrain and raw homing ability. I guess, like Dusan, I’m sort of old fashioned about greatness. It’s not about the money. There isn’t any. Whether you win your section or the whole shebang you get a DVD from Jim Jenner and a subscription to the Digest. That’s it. Unless of course you’re in this game for that priceless prize called pride.
Jim Jenner is the creator of more than a dozen award-winning films on pigeons and the racing sport. His latest film “Secrets of Champions VII: Life in the Fast Lane” documents the 200 fanciers who race with the GHC in Central Florida. Jim’s work can be seen at www.pigeonfilms.com.