They came from Kansas. Well, originally, they came from the deserts of Africa. But these guys -- these ostriches -- came from Kansas. And they came to Canterbury Park on Sunday afternoon to race with jockeys on their backs.
Which raises the question: Who in his right mind would want to ride a giant bird known for its wily temperament and lethal leg kicks?
Scratch that. After taking one look at the massive crowd Sunday, here's a better question: Who wouldn't want to watch them race?
For the second annual "Extreme Race Day," the Shakopee horse track pulled in an estimated 15,000 curious onlookers. While horses raced all day, the crowd came to see a different kind of thoroughbred. And they'd only get one chance -- yep, one race to decide the faster ostrich in Minnesota (by way of Kansas).
Ostriches are strange beasts. They have huge eyes hidden behind long eyelashes. Some stand 8 feet tall, with slender necks and bushy black feathers on their wings and back. Their gigantic legs aren't as prissy: Unlike those of smaller birds, these legs are more comparable to a velociraptor from "Jurassic Park." They were made for running. Top speed: 40 miles an hour.
The five ostriches pacing inside Canterbury's stables Sunday morning didn't necessarily look like racing animals, but then again, they didn't really look like they cared either way. When they weren't pecking at the shiny objects on their handler -- rings and belt buckles -- they were just kind of spaced out, as if to say, "What the heck am I doing here?"
The guy who knows them best, Joe Hedrick, brought them 600 miles from his exotic-animal farm in Nickerson, Kansas. Hedrick is an old rodeo clown who's grown a successful business out of petting zoos and weird animal races. This weekend he had pig races in other states, and camels later in the afternoon at Canterbury.
But there's nothing like running ostriches. Hedrick will be the first to tell you: "These guys are pretty mellow, but an ostrich that hasn't been worked with can be very cantankerous. They can kill you. And if they catch you out in the open, you can't outrun them."
Yikes. But since acquiring a small group in the 1970s, he's continued to raise them and gotten fairly close.
"You know that movie 'The Horse Whisperer,' well, there's a lot of people who have been doing that with animals their whole lives -- we just didn't write a book," he said.
So he would be the ostrich whisperer? Whatever the case, he cares for them. Even when there was money in it, he didn't farm them for their leather.
He's even gotten a couple bruises from his beloved birds. They kick hard. "Mmm-hmph, and it hurts," he said.
If you think keeping them in line might be hard, try riding them. Jockey Keith Davis was the winner of last year's "Extreme Race Day." This veteran horse jockey said it feels like riding a giant football.
"It's weird, because in the gate, they can turn their head all the way around and look at you," he said. "So I had to turn his head back around and off we went."
At this year's race, the stands were packed by midday, as people feverishly waited for the ostriches to come out. At about 2:45 p.m. they were shuttled onto the dirt track and funneled into the starting gate. The crowd murmured with excitement as ostrich heads frantically bobbed up and down behind the metal bars.
Suddenly there was a "bam!" The gates flew open and five lumbering birds with little men on their backs burst onto the track. Immediately one ostrich -- Curl Beak -- did a somersault, sending his jockey to the ground. The other four dashed for the 100-yard finish line. Jockey Davis slid off Secrechariot at the half-way point, his dreams of a repeat win destroyed. Victory was within reach for Da Wing Man, but his jockey slid off, too.
When the dust settled from all those falling jockeys, the win went to Brown Bird, whose rider -- the only woman in the bunch -- clung for dear life.
So as soon as it started, it was finished. For the adults in the crowd, it was worth a chuckle. Chris Simons of New Prague probably summed it up best: "Pretty good for a 30-second stunt."
But for the kids? It was pure ecstasy. All 4-year-old Jaxson Moon could say was this:
"I love ost-er-iches!"
Don't we all?
Tom Horgen • 612-673-7909