There are plenty of things, besides ostriches, that draw about 300,000 people to Chandler’s Ostrich Festival each year.
When the event kicks off at 2 p.m. Friday, visitors will find carnival rides and games, live music — including a Saturday night concert by Eddie Money — on three stages, and medieval-style jousting by mounted riders in knights’ armor. There’s also a sea lion show and a cowboy who ropes, throws knives, cracks a bullwhip and spins and shoots his gun with the help of two horses trained to do stunts.
But the ostrich races, run with both mounted jockeys and pull-behind chariots, remain the don’t-miss event of the 23rd annual festival. Races are at 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. Friday and noon, 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Here, Steve Boger of Hambone Express, the Oklahoma outfit that trucks in the ostriches and organizes the races, chats about the birds. He and his brother also run the festival’s pig races and 130-animal petting zoo, where you’ll find yaks, zebras and pony and camel rides.
Q: What ever made you look at an ostrich and say, “You know, I’m going to climb aboard that thing. That’s a great idea!”?
A: I’d seen it for years. I’m 57 years old, and I started in this business when I was 14. My dad’s 81, and he’s still in it. I worked for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey (circus) for several years. We just love animals. Always have.
Q: Tell about the ostriches that will race at the festival.
A: There are six in the races and two we’ll leave on display. It’s all males that race. They’re just bigger and stronger and, as with most species, they’re a lot prettier. They’re not exactly the most intelligent animals world. The only thing that might be less intelligent is the one who would get on top of one of them.
Q: Those would be the jockeys. Who are they, and how do they train?
A: I have a crew of guys — Antonio, Billy, Dustin and myself. You just get on and fall off and try to figure out what you did wrong. It can be a little scary. One boy asked me “How do you get off?” and I said, “Don’t worry about that; the ostrich will generally take care of that for you.” We don’t let anybody ride that’s over 180 pounds, and some of them are real small — around 120 or 130 pounds.
Q: How do you train the ostriches to race?
A: For them, you have to get them to go down and around in a circle. They instinctively come back to where they’re fed and watered, so that’s pretty easy. You don’t have to urge them to run. They just run. When the starting gate opens, you better be holding on because they’re going somewhere. They’ve got one speed, and it’s full blast.
Q: Is it dangerous?
A: They’re not the most docile animals. They can be dangerous. They can take a front kick at you, and if they hit you the right way they can rip you open. They can tear some stuff up. There’s really no way to steer. You just kind of hold on down at the base of their wings. I went over the front of one, one time, and my bird ran me over and then the guy behind me ran over me with his bird. I’m nearly 60 years old, and I tell them if the old man’s still got it, you 20-year-olds ought to be able to do it.
Q: Do the birds have much of a personality?
A: Not really. They’re a whole lot like my ex-wife; they just kind of stand there and look dumb.
Q: What would people be surprised to know about them?
A: They’ve all got names. Tweety Bird, Big Bird, The Incredible Hulk. Some of them are really big — up around 500 pounds. They “work” two times a year, here in Chandler in the spring and at the Delta Fair & Music Festival in Memphis in September. The rest of the year they’re out in the pasture, being ostriches. They just walk around and eat and lay down. Whenever they lay their eggs, the males will sit on them during the night. They’re kind of hen-pecked.
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