The Tampa Tribune

FAIRGOERS FLOCK TO FOWL EVENT

By Phillip Morgan

TAMPALadies and gentlemen, start your mallards!

At the quack of the caller, racing ducks flapped and splashed to the finish line Thursday at the Florida State Fair.

Amid cheers, laughter and lots of flying droplets, Jeff Korell, a tourist from Van Nuys, Calif., and 10-year-old Sean Garcia, of Tampa, tied for first place in the Great American Duck Race.

It was a moment for both to savor.

“I figured if I let it squirm before the race, it might be more energetic and want to get away sooner,” Korell said.“And my guess paid off.”

“I gave it a little push,” Sean said.

Robert Duck’s duck race – and yes, that is his real name – is one of the free events at the fair, which ends Monday night after a 12-day run.

Attendance as of Tuesday was down from last year, a fair spokeswoman said.Organizers attributed the weaker turnout to the cold weather.

Duck’s act is one of the new events this year.He and his wife, Kathy, have been traveling the fair circuit since 1999 with Chase, their herding border collie, and a couple dozen fowl friends (33 this week).

He closed his jewelry business and started the show after racking up $50,000 over the 12 years of competing in the original Great American Duck Race in Deming, N.M.

His celebrity – and his name – got him an appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.”

Alas, his special way with ducks finally caught up to him.Great American Duck Race officials changed their BYODuck rule and Duck’s ducks were out of business.

Now he gets 100 ducklings a year from a hatchery – “If they didn’t go to us, they would go to a hunting lodge” – and trains them to race using their natural instinct to flap back to the flock.After enough repetitions, the ducks “start having fun with it,” as Duck says, and race whenever they’re released.

He keeps the fastest 25 or so and sets free the rest in the Rio Grande.After a year or two, he releases the performers and replaces them.

He opens by having Chase herd the ducks from their cage to an enclosure near the starting line.Duck lines up four audience members and hands each a duck, sometimes making up a name for the animal.

He named one Duck Cheney.“Or maybe I should say ‘Duck! Cheney!” he joked, crouching for the effect.

Korell said of course he plans to brag about his victory when he returns to Van Nuys.

“Not many people have won duck races there.There’s very little water; it’s all desert.”

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