‘Like a thoroughbred race horse’: inside the high-speed, high-stakes world of pigeon racing | Australia sport

Down a quiet dirt road, deep in Sydney’s west, sits a clubhouse. The exterior is nondescript – a big shed clad with corrugated iron. But inside lies a cave of wonders, a treasure trove of trophies and honour rolls and scoreboards scrawled in chalk, with cages galore in every corner. It is a holy space devoted to one divine being: the pigeon.

The walls are covered top to bottom in them, frame after frame of pictures bearing champions of the past eight decades since the Blacktown Racing Pigeon Club was founded. As ever, though, some stars shine brighter than the rest, and on a plaque mounted above the office are three of the very best.

A celebration for Trevor Steed who recently turned 80 years old was held at the Blacktown pigeon racing club, one of the oldest in the country.

  • A celebration for Trevor Steed, who recently turned 91, at the Blacktown pigeon racing club. The club is one of the oldest in the country

These hens are legendary. They are “Charlie’s Angels”. The trio of sisters won the 1995 Central Cumberland Federation All Age Derby on a photo-finish, flying together in a diamond formation all the way home to their owner, Trevor Steed. They beat about 10,000 others that day, in a feat that had never been seen before and, by many forecasts, will never be replicated.

That is partly the reason 30-odd people are gathered here on a Friday night. They are celebrating the 80th anniversary of Steed’s pigeon racing career. Variously described by his peers as a “a genius”, “the master” and “our hero”, this 91-year-old boasts an unmatched winning streak and won the club championship almost 40 years on the trot.

One of the Blacktown racing clubs patrons marking up a score board.
One of the many pigeon cages within the club.
A box of Trevor Steeds trophy’s.

Steed is, quite simply, marvellous. He has cracked the Columbidae code. He is probably part-pigeon. Tonight his feathers are hidden underneath a T-shirt given to him by the club in a special presentation. The front is printed with the words “Trevor’s Angels”.

He still remembers that momentous day. Waiting patiently in his Blacktown back yard at about 4pm – about eight hours after the release in Cobar – then spotting something peculiar overhead. “I seen these three pigeons coming in like a diamond – one in front and one on either side,” Steed says. “I thought ‘one of these is mine, I’ll get a couple of circles out of the other two and get mine down’.

“I was flapping the fantail – the white one gets them down – and they were all still coming towards me. Then they all went straight in the door.”

Well, two did. The third was trap-shy, having previously got herself caught, and landed by the coop’s entrance. “When I turned around to come out the door I put me foot on her. But them three had stayed together all day. I’ve had that before with adult pigeons. But only with two, not three.”

L-R Tony Sienkiewicz, Trevor Steed and Steve Eggleton.

Steed has been a constant in the community since he started racing as an 11-year-old in 1943, and instrumental in keeping it afloat through decades of decline.

Pigeon racing has always been niche but it was once, in that context, very popular. With 19th-century origins in Belgium that quickly spread to England, the working class – particularly miners – liked its accessibility, lack of ageism and the fact it was a pastime often conducted at a pub or working men’s club.

Homing pigeons were already intrinsic to life before electronic communications. The ancient Greeks used them to send Olympic Games results from town to town, and in Egypt they were released from incoming ships to announce the arrival of important visitors. In the 1850s, the Reuters news agency started as a pigeon service, sending trained birds to carry stock prices between Brussels and Aachen – a gap in the telegraph route – because their two-hour flight was faster than rail.

Steve Micallef.

They also hold a revered place in wartime history. In the second world war, pigeons were awarded 32 of the 53 Dickin Medals for animal bravery. Gustav, Winkie and William of Orange are among those who gallantly served in communications and reconnaissance roles. In 1943, an American pigeon named GI Joe flew 20 miles (32km) in 20 minutes to deliver an urgent message that prevented the allied air force from accidentally bombing their own men, saving more than 100 lives in the Italian village of Calvi Vecchia.

In 1942, as Australia stared down the barrel of a Japanese invasion, the Australian Corps of Signals Pigeon Service was created as an alternative means of communication. Australians donated about 13,500 homing pigeons to the service, which was used between the coastal defences and eventually joined the Pacific war effort in New Guinea.

One of the many pigeons owned by Tony Sienkiewicz.

“My grandfather trained pigeons in the war,” says Alex Caruana, Blacktown’s club president who has been winning competitions since he was 14. He was introduced by his grandfather and uncle as a kid in Malta, before migrating to Australia in 1980 when he was 12. “I cried my eyes off at the airport,” he says. “They thought I was missing my family; I just didn’t want to leave the pigeons.”

He is not alone in getting attached. Among the world’s high-profile pigeon fanciers are Mike Tyson, Elvis Presley and Queen Elizabeth II. Australia can lay claim to Bill Lawry. The former Test captain, now 85, won a race just last month when one of his 26 entrants outpaced 2,800 rivals over the approximately 480km from the New South Wales town of West Wyalong to his home north-east of Melbourne.

Trevor Steed, 91 in his backyard of his Blacktown home in Western Sydney.

“You send them away as fit as you possibly can and just hope you’ve got one that’s in the leading pack,” Lawry said in a September radio interview. “Pigeon racing is like a long cycling race at the Olympic Games – no matter how good your birds are, you need that little break to get away in the right pack. Then you hope they don’t get hit by hawks or foul weather.”

Weather is a key ingredient to a successful liberation – the mass release at a specific location from where the pigeons chart a course to their respective homes. Fog, mist and low clouds are a warning sign and rain will almost always mean a cancellation because wet feathers can force them to land. Once in the air, the physical demands are high, as is their susceptibility to predators.

A pigeon in the loft owned by Trevor Steed.

In August, thousands of pigeons went missing after hitting a summer storm on their way from southern France to Belgium, eliciting heavy criticism from the Belgian pigeon federation for allowing the birds to become airborne despite forecasts of bad weather. Animal welfare groups, such as the RSPCA, say racing pigeons must “receive adequate physical training and be in excellent body condition”.

“It’s all very welfare-centric,” says Blacktown club member Stephen Eggleton, a former director of the Australian National Racing Pigeon Board and chair of the Welfare Working Group for Liberation Protocols. “We’ve got proper protocols. It’s like a traffic light system, so you only let them go in the right conditions.”

This year’s incessant rain has inflicted more cancellations than usual. Still, the most dedicated persist in their pursuit of avian greatness. “It gets in your blood,” says Eggleton. Much like the birds they keep, these diehard racers are a specific breed. Often viewed as eccentric, they could not be prouder to be pigeonholed.

It may seem a curious thing that a bird widely scorned by the mainstream is worshipped so sincerely within these walls. The infamous “rats of the sky” have long been a source of disquiet for many a park-goer and biosecurity authority (Joe the Pigeon only narrowly escaped death row in Melbourne last year). To the pigeon fancier, though, the negative reputation is as misguided as the nickname is blasphemous.

David Jovanov.

“People don’t understand the hobby” – David Jovanov

Jovanov, a Macedonian-Australian works as a maintenance officer at Parklea prison. “Everyone goes ‘pigeons, yuck’, but race pigeons aren’t park pigeons. These are Formula Ones. They’re like a thoroughbred race horse, they’ve been that refined. They cost millions of dollars.”

In 2020, a Belgian racing pigeon named New Kim sold for a record-breaking €1.6m ($AUS2.5m at today’s exchange rate) in China, where the sport has soared in popularity among the ultra-wealthy. New Kim surpassed the previous record set in 2017 by another Belgian pigeon, Golden Prince, which sold for €360,000 ($AU561,500 today). Prices are flying up at a rate reminiscent of football’s inflated transfer market.

In China, pigeons are a new status symbol, with winning prize pots in the millions and fanciers reportedly numbering approximately 1 million. It is estimated there are about 100,000 breeders in Beijing alone.

A stuffed pigeon names Rego on display at fellow flier Tony Grech’s house.

“I’ve sold pigeons to Taiwan, sent some to America,” Steed says from inside the coop in his back yard. “A chap from Taiwan, he brought an interpreter out and offered me $10,000 for one pigeon. He was loaded with money. He won $2.4m that season. I said, ‘no, it’s not for sale’. I said, ‘I got no money, but I like winning races’, so I sold him that bird’s son.”

Another prized possession off limits to buyers was Rego, who won four from four starts as a two-year-old and twice topped the Central Cumberland Federation – Australia’s largest. Rego, named after the Regents Park squeaker sale at which she was bought, is stuffed and on display at fellow flyer Tony Grech’s house, next to one of Charlie’s Angels.

Eggleton’s main breeders are all importers. He has more than 25 direct imports in his loft including Belgian and UK wrens. A query about their collective worth is met with a frank “no comment”. But he has an innate instinct for a winning bird. “That comes from experience. I’ve been a judge at lots of shows, so I’ve got a process.

“It’s body, balance, wing, eyes, but for me it’s more temperament. Because I’m connected to my birds, my birds come home to me. When I put them in my hands, I want them to have an engine as well. You can feel that they’ve got lots of vitality. And then there’s pedigree.”

Homing pigeons are biologically the same as feral pigeons, except they are selectively bred. If well looked after, they can live upwards of 20 years. One in Blacktown made it to 27. The general consensus, according to the internet, is that pigeons are mostly monogamous. This, according to Caruana, is a fallacy. “No, they’re pretty slutty,” he clarifies. “Both females and males. If they get a bit bored with one they’ll just go for another.”

Exactly how they navigate remains a beautiful mystery, though scientists have theorised they use the sun, the Earth’s magnetic fields, their own internal compass and local landmarks.

The driver of the truck from Blacktown gets ready to release the pigeons.

  • Thomas Attard, who has driven from Blacktown to Ballina, preparing the gates on the truck before the liberation

The sport itself is simple. Trainers release their birds a specified distance away from their home, usually hundreds of kilometres, and measure the time it takes for them to fly back. Each bird wears a numbered rubber or electronic ring around one leg. When it arrives at its home loft, a rubber ring is removed and placed in a clock which registers the time, while an electronic ring submits the time to a computer.

The distance of the flight and the time taken are used to calculate the average air-speed velocity (there’s a Monty Python joke involving coconuts and swallows in here somewhere) and the bird with the highest score wins. The speeds vary, but can be as high as 140km/h. In a country where the legal driving speed limit tops out at 130km/h, it is criminally fast.

“They’ve flown to Tassie in a day, they’ve flown from Rockhampton in a day,” Jovanov says. “The bird weighs 400g and we expect a lot from them. The joy you get when they come home, it’s priceless. To understand the mechanics and what the birds do for you, you get emotional talking about it.”

Pigeons waiting to be liberated in Ballina, NSW.

To become the best, these well-bred pigeons require training from about 20 days old. “You let them out,” Caruana says. “But before that, you feed them and you whistle or shake something, something they associate with food.”

Caruana usually whistles, but new living arrangements have forced him to change tack and hold up something hi-vis instead. “I live in a new house which is very small, with a very small yard. I don’t want to bloody piss the neighbours off.”

A trainer will let them out for an hour, then call them back, and gradually increase their flying time. Once mastered, they are released a few kilometres down the road to fly home. After they moult, their flying time is increased incrementally.

A pigeon liberation in Ballina, NSW.

“Everything is baby steps,” Caruana says. “I have respect that they’re not machines, they’re living things. It’s called match fitness. Flying around home is easy, but when you take them away they stress a bit more and fly quicker. But I am ruthless with training.”

There’s a man in the far corner wearing shorts, thongs and a weathered smile. Trevor Richmond sips a beer under a wide-brimmed hat, with playful eyes indicating he could be either about to tell you the truth or have you on. “I helped build the Opera House,” he says, then lets rip a wild, jackhammer of a cackle and launches into a largely indecipherable explanation. Richmond is a former construction worker, so this claim is entirely feasible. “I’ve had pigeons since seven years of age,” he says. “Now I’m 72 – do your maths.”

Trevor Richmond.

As a child, Richmond caught random pigeons off the street. He was soon hooked. “They’re a drug,” he says. “Once you’ve got pigeons and you get into ‘em, you’re addicted. There’s something about them. People don’t see it, but I see a champion race horse.”

Richmond races pigeons provided by his friend, Keith Weaver. Work and a relationship (“my ex didn’t like pigeons”) kept Weaver away from the game for years, but when his father died he inherited his house and his birds. “I kept the pigeons, won’t get rid of them,” he says. “I like the breeding part of it. I bred some for Trevor and Steve and they raised them. They let me know how they go, and if they go all right I breed off them. Then if some guys want to buy some pigeons, I’ll sell them.”

The Steve in this scenario is Steven Craig. He and Richmond comprise a team called the Dodgy Brothers. “I race in partnership with Trevor,” Craig says. “We’re a bit different.” He points to a blackboard scribbled with names and statistics and, low and behold, “Dodgy Bros” is there about halfway down.

Directly above them is “T&J Steed”. Steed, a former bricklayer, has been with his wife Jean for 68 years. He taught Jean the ropes and together they were pigeon-racing royalty, with pet corgis to boot. “She was a good listener and a quick learner,” he says. “She was a great strapper. The last five years I haven’t [raced] pigeons because I just haven’t got the time – and I haven’t got me strapper.” He is crying softly now, and retrieves a handkerchief from his pocket. For a moment he can’t speak. “It’s hard without my wife,” he says. “She was a great lady.”

91 year old Trevor Steed in his pigeon loft of his Blacktown home in Western Sydney.
Pigeons resting at Trevor Steeds loft.

Jean, 86, is in a nursing home with dementia. “I had her at home for four years and I was trying to be with the pigeons,” he says. “But I used to come up from down the yard and she’d be on the floor.” His daughters told him it was time. He visits Jean every day without fail.

The support for Steed reflects the intimacy of this group, a sense of community encapsulated by Jenny Wyatt, the minute secretary. Caruana calls her “the backbone”. “It’s a very close-knit club,” Wyatt says. “It’s a well-known club, and a very liked club. We’ve got people out of boundaries that want to fly with us and we are letting them in. We’re easy, we’re not strict. We have rules, but we’re flexible.”

Pigeons exercising above the home of Tony Sienkiewicz.

The welcoming attitude is felt keenly by Tony Sienkiewicz, a 73-year-old Polish-Australian who came here by boat with his parents and sister in the 1950s. “All my grandparents, relatives, cousins, everyone was killed by the Germans and the Russians,” he says. “Only me and my sister were alive, and one cousin.”

On arrival to Sydney, Sienkiewicz’s family lived in a migrant accommodation camp in western Sydney. His father, who worked at Sydney Water and Warragamba Dam, eventually bought a house with another Polish man who had travelled on the same boat. The two families, totalling nine members, lived in its two bedrooms. Sienkiewicz started racing pigeons at 17. “The best prize I got was third-last,” he says. “I used to run last, week after week.” Why? “I didn’t know nothing about ‘em!”

73-year-old Tony Sienkiewicz holding one of his pigeons at his home.

The general consensus is that the sport is deep in a seemingly inexorable decline. Some of Australia’s oldest clubs, including the prestigious Leichhardt Flying Club, are gone and those in the outer suburbs are fast dwindling as council rates and the cost of seed, vaccinations and petrol become too much for traditional blue-collar participants.

Blacktown, once a club of 56, is down to 20 members. And most are ageing. “The next generation is the challenge,” Eggleton says. “But there are a lot of new Australians from different nationalities getting into it as well.”

A glimmer of hope lies in the sport’s inter-generational nature. Lance Micallef has been teaching the craft to his five-year-old son, Dominic, who has started racing – with some help. “Like most dads, we pick the pigeons for him,” Micallef says. “He won the points score in the first year out of about 20 juniors. He’s really, really involved.” Dominic likes the colourful pigeons, though right now he is more intent on counting his fingers. “One, two, three, four,” he says, raising each one. How many pigeons does he have? “Ten!”

16-year-old, Ella Caruana.

Similarly, Caruana’s 16-year-old daughter, Ella, is vocally passionate. “I like coming down to be social,” she says. “I hate being stuck on my phone at home, it’s horrible. I would rather be outside in the fresh air, or even at Bathurst where they release – it’s nice up there.”

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