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Meet The Thoroughbirds: Ostrich Races Capture Crowds At State Fair Of Texas

Cars race, horses race, pigs race, and this year at the State Fair ostriches race. The competitors stand 7-feet tall: their heads well above the top frame of the starting gate. They look like miniature bobble-heads with big brown eyes – heads darting up and down, side to side as the jockeys mount. That’s right. There are riders.

The starting gate opens and in a flash they round the curve of the horseshoe track at the Pan American Arena and zip across the finish line. 

“We really don’t time them, but I’m gonna say from start to finish, 10 to 15 seconds.  I mean it’s fast,” Joe Hedrick, Master of Ceremonies says.  

This is the first time he’s brought ostrich races to the State Fair. Two dozen are here. And Hedrick knows each one by name.

“We have Big Bird, Super Bird, Henhouse Harry, Birdzilla, Bird Brain, Tweety Bird, ” Hedrick listed, pointing at different areas of the large holding pen.

Tweety Bird sauntered over to join the post race interview. And he was right on cue as Hedrick talked about the birds being famous for pecking at things and people, including Hedrick’s knuckle.     

“They come up here and peck out of curiosity," Hedrick said. "Their beaks, they have some strength in them but like where he’s pecking on my knuckle it doesn’t bother as much.” 

So, what’s it like to ride an ostrich?  Jockey Karla Burrell’s been doing it for 13 years.

“There’s nothing else like it on the planet, I can say that," Burrell said enthusiastically. "It’s like a football – staying on the center, highest point of it is key.”

Each racing ostrich wears a canvas harness on its back to protect its feathers and give jockeys something to hold onto. Burrell says sometimes jocks tuck their feet under the birds’ wings.  And she talks to her ostrich as they streak down the course.

“Cluck, cluck noises," she explained. "I go ye-ye-ye-ye-yah, ch-ch-ch-ch.  Just something so they’re hearing you.”

She says that helps them focus, but – not always. Ostriches can be very unpredictable.

The most comical thing they do is they’ll spin.  They can be in a dead run and all of a sudden decide they’re gonna stop and they’re gonna twirl like a ballerina real fast," Burrell said, giggling.  "And there’s nothing you can do. And it looks really cool to the audience.”

But when that happens, Burrell says you get dizzy, then you get slung off.  She has a few favorites she likes to ride.

“The do seem to enjoy it.  You know once you work with them so long like Joe does they get the routine down," Burrell said. "They know what’s going to happen when those gates open.”

When it’s show time, handlers gently herd them down the hall to the arena. The birds walk with purpose and take a left into the ring.

Fair officials say one animal rights group has registered a complaint about the attraction. Joe Hedrick says he understands it’s not for everyone. But he says he takes care of his racing thoroughbirds.   

“These ostriches are so strong in their legs," Hedrick said with a nod toward the nearest one. "Them weighing 450 pounds, we limit the weight on the jockeys to 130 pounds.  That’s a reasonably light load on them. You know we’ve been doing it for years.  I know how strong they are. We feel that we know what we’re doing.”

The ostriches run three at a time, and alternate races. It all was a first for David Arnold of Dallas.

“Oh, I thought it was great," Arnold said with a chuckle. "They’re very funny, magnificent really. I’d love to see them really at full speed.”

Which is about 30 miles an hour and would take a lot more room than they have in the Fair. 

Former KERA reporter BJ Austin spent more than 25 years in broadcast journalism, anchoring and reporting in Atlanta, New York, New Orleans and Dallas. Along the way, she covered Atlanta City Hall, the Georgia Legislature and the corruption trials of Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards.