Citizen Staff Writer
The 90-foot horseshoe racetrack is laid out ahead. On one end, the starting gates are being loaded; on the other, soft-serve ice cream with Oreo cookies awaits the victor. The starting gates rattle as the athletic animals become anxious. Similarly, the tension builds in the crowd. Suddenly, the gates fly open and they’re off!
Screaming Yellow Oinker, Go-Go Green, Pork-Belly Blue and Speedracer Red tear around the track as spectators scream for their champions.
“The racing pigs is an event that just about any age group will enjoy watching,” says Launa Rabago, marketing director of the Pima County Fair, which kicks off April 16. “(Audiences) think it’s funny and entertaining. I haven’t ever recognized that pigs appeal to any certain age demographic, so we consider it an event for everybody regardless of age.”
“Cook’s Racing Pigs” at the Pima County Fair is just like any other day at the races, the pig races that is. Before each race, audience members pick a color, yellow, green, blue or red. These correspond to one of the pigs in the race. Once the race is finished, everyone who picked the color of the winning pig is awarded a blue ribbon – that proudly declares, “My Pig Won!” – and entered in a drawing for hats and shirts.
“It’s a memory that we’re able to create for the spectators at the Pima County Fair,” says Charles Cook, owner of the pig racing company. “Some folks have never won a blue ribbon before.”
Cook, 48, raised pigs as a child and teenager in the agriculture organizations 4-H and FFA. At the age of 26, Cook, whose mother owned an ice-cream shop, was asked by a representative from the California State Fair if it would be possible to train pigs to race. As it turned out, all it took was cookies and cream.
“They are very motivated by the dessert,” Cook says. “Whoever gets there first gets more, so that’s their incentive to outrun the others. They actually change positions and you can see that they’re trying hard to get there first.”
Cook’s racing pigs are different from other porkers seen around the fair, he says. Rather than being meaty and muscular, the wild breed pigs he purchases are smaller and thinner. This ensures they can fit in the starting gates for as long as possible.
Cook buys the pigs once they are weaned from their mothers – and the training begins.
“In the first day of training they walk around the track until they realize they have that reward at the finish line,” Cook says. “Then the second day, they jog. And the third day, they run.”
Once the pigs have become seasoned competitors, they tour the country, competing with one another for that grand prize of ice cream and cookies. Each pig’s career lasts about one year or, “as long as they can fit in the starting gate,” Cook says.
As is the case with any athlete, there comes a day when the pigs realize they just aren’t what they used to be. Once the racers have passed their prime, they are retired and sold to anyone wanting a legendary racing pig. Cook generally buys only female pigs and tries to sell them to breeders to create the next generation of competitors.
As far as his own retirement, Cook says he and his family still have a lot of races left in them.
“We’ll be doing this until we’re physically too old to travel down the road and our new 9-month-old son will take over the business in the future.”
IF YOU GO
What: Pima County Fair
When: April 16-26. Main Gate opens at noon on weekdays and 10 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Closing time is from 11:30-12:30 p.m.
Where: Pima County Fairgrounds, 11300 S. Houghton Road
Price: $7 general, $2 for 6-10 years old, $5 for parking
Info: 762-FAIR, www.PimaCountyFair.com
What: Cook’s Racing Pigs
When: daily heats at the fair are 1:40, 4:30, 6 and 9 p.m.
CONCERTS AT THE FAIR
April 18: Country star Phil Vassar, 7:30 p.m.
April 19: norteño musician Ramon Ayala, 7:30 p.m.
April 20: youth performance troupe Breakdown Tucson, 8 p.m.
April 24: Nat and Alex Wolff of The Naked Brothers Band, 7:30 p.m.
April 25: ’80s rocker and reality TV star Bret Michaels, 8 p.m.
April 26: alt-country band Roger Clyne & The Peacemakers, 5:30 p.m.
Concerts are free with fair admission