There are certain days in ones life that will be remembered forever. Such a day for me occurred on Sunday 8th July 2018. When I witnessed a 40 year old record broken.
My good friend and leading Irish Long distance racing pigeon fancier Paul Swindell. Had invited me to join him at his home to watch for the birds from the Irish national flying club (INFC), Kings cup grand national from St. Allouestre France liberated on Friday 6th July. Then for the birds from the British International Championship club (BICC), race from Le Mans liberated on Saturday 7th July.
Racing for Paul as many will know is all about 3 weekends of the year. The last weekend of June is when all the organisations in Ireland hold there longest old bird race of the year. This year held from the port city of St. Malo in the Brittany region of North Western France.
2018 racing background:
All year Paul had been building for the St. Malo race alone. It represented his first opportunity to compete for one of the most important distance trophies in Irish pigeon racing. The Millar Gold Cup.
The Millar Gold Cup is awarded to the fastest bird from the old bird derbies. From a member of the Ulster Federation and all IHU (Irish Homing Union) members of affiliated associations. Paul as a member of the Northern Ireland Pigeon Amalgamation (NIPA) had never been allowed to take part in the race. As the NIPA is a Royal Pigeon Racing Association (RPRA) affiliated organisation. As such its members are excluded from the chance to win the trophy.
Early in 2018 the Ulster Federation took the very bold step to try and expand its membership. By opening up membership to its historical base the 9 counties of Ulster. Instead of restricting itself to the boundaries of greater Belfast as it had done for nearly 2 generations. This gave Paul the opportunity to join the fed and so be entitled to race for the cup.
From the day he joined he had one objective. Prepare as good a team of birds as possible to have a real go for the Millar Gold Cup. He had 32 birds paired and sitting on eggs, everything was going perfectly.
Last minute change of plans:
Then a bombshell. 4 days before the birds were due to be hampered he received a phone call from the Ulster Federation treasurer. Telling him that due to pigeon politics the Ulster fed would not be transported to the race. So therefore the fed had no other alternative than as an organisation not to take part. 6 months of planning gone in a 30 second phone call.
Unlike all other parts of the UK when one of your 3 French races is gone there is no alternative organisation to race with. Now there were 32 birds that were going to be a full 7 days ahead of schedule. What could be done, the Kings cup was a fortnight away and the only other French race a week after that. Something had to be sorted and sorted fast.
I made frantic calls to the Eclipse 650 club chairman Alan Shinton. I outlined Paul’s predicament and he kindly offered to collect the birds if we could get them to Holyhead. Take them to Chirk marking station to enter into the BICC Le Mans race to be held on Saturday 7th July, the same weekend as the Kings cup. A few further phone calls and within the hour Paul was booked on the Dublin Holyhead ferry. The adventure would be on.
Decisions now had to be made, how many would he send to the Kings cup? A race he had not even considered entering this year. Such had his mindset been on the Millar Gold cup. Which birds would he send to Le Mans? Would it be an all or nothing approach?
Chasing a 40 year old record:
Adversity is a great tool for focusing the mind to its purpose. The birds were caught, evaluated and graded. Only those that Paul was both certain were bred for Le Mans and in the right condition to give them the best possible chance to succeed went into the Le Mans hampers. It was a very rigorous selection process. If there was the slightest doubt then the bird was set aside for the Kings cup. At one time all 32 were going to Le Mans so close was the quality of birds. For once I won the argument and it was decided that 25% would go to the Kings cup. With the majority going to Le Mans.
On Tuesday 3rd July, 8 birds were taken to the INFC marking station for the Kings Cup by our good friend Tommy Mooney. The other 24 were safely hampered fed, watered and ready for the morning ferry crossing to Holyhead. The drama was not yet over. A phone call from Tommy to inform us our entry was now down to 7. An ETS ring had not registered. Worse still the bird in question was a yearling cock that had performed steady all year with several top 10 finishes. Could anything else go wrong? Stupid question of course it could.
The journey begins:
Paul was booked on to the 8.05 ferry from Dublin to Holyhead. The plan was that he would meet up with Michael Feeney at 7.00 and that they would then board as foot passengers with the birds. Upon arrival they started to draw the attention of dept. of agriculture officials. Then doubt was cast by Stena Line officials as to whether the birds would be allowed on. I had taken a call from a very irate Pat Nolan the previous Saturday. He told me that when he was taking his birds on board (he was sending to Barcelona International). A fellow Irish fancier had been forced to release his birds by a Stena Line official. A years preparation gone on the actions of a jobs worth.
This was why when booking the ticket I had insisted on having pets on the ticket. This and Paul’s brashness won the day and the birds were onboard. Thanks Pat Nolan for the heads up.
After that as soon as the boat departed Dublin an air of relief set in, the birds were underway. After the boat docked in Holyhead, Paul and Michael were met by the wonderful folk from the Eclipse 650 club. I have to state at this point that this organisation has revitalised the interest in long distance racing in Northern England, Wales and Ireland.
Special people Eclipse 650 club:
From an embryo of an idea late in 2017 they have evolved into a slick well run operation. Running their own marking station at Chirk and transporting to the first 6 races of the BICC programme. As well as to the Agen International. They also offered to take all Irish birds to BICC marking stations throughout the year. An awesome organisation run by and for awesome people.
They are what pigeon racing should be about. No bitchiness, no back stabbing just positiveness and willingness to help. I would strongly recommend, to anyone wishing to send birds to BICC races or Internationals. If you live in the North of England, Wales or Ireland, join the 650 club. They will look after you better than you could imagine possible.
The journey back was uneventful and the craic with Michael was very enjoyable. It was very interesting to get his take on methods and preparation for the channel races. So the wait began 2 days to the Kings cup. Expectations were not high the preparation was wrong. The birds other than races, had not been able to exercise for nearly 4 weeks. Apart from a 40 mile training toss the day before hampering. Such has been the threat from peregrines around the loft. It was what it was, better to try than to give up.
The race is on
Throughout June and early July 2018, the island of Ireland has been in the grip of one of the longest driest periods of weather on record. This has meant very difficult racing conditions for the channel and French races. With soaring temperatures North Easterly winds and fog on the sea.
The 2,827 Kings cup birds were released at 8.30 on the Friday morning. In bright sunny skies with a light North Westerly wind. A head wind it would be tough. As the hours of darkness arrived it was reported that there were no birds recorded into Ireland on the 1st day. Everyone’s fears were confirmed it was a smash. Any bird getting home would be a brave one.
At lofts across Ireland the vigil was on from early light on the Saturday. The Kings cup winner was still out there. Landing boards were burnt into tired eyes as the skies were scanned endlessly. Dreams were still alive in every entrants mind. Then for us the real excitement began the 2,428 BICC Le Mans birds had been liberated at 6.00am.
The record attempt is go:
We now had 2 races on. 2 opportunities to create history. In Paul’s mind his best birds had been sent to Le Mans, but what was being asked of them was according to most to be impossible. Never in the 40 year history of the BICC had a bird been clocked in race time into Ireland. It had been attempted on many occasions by numerous top Irish racers but no one had ever succeeded.
Now Paul was attempting the impossible. On a weekend when the cream of Irish distance racing had been unable to clock, from North West France with a full Irish convoy. Paul was asking his birds to break out from a convoy heading to England, from central France. Some 100 miles east of where the Irish birds had been liberated. They then had to fly on their own across the Irish sea. Thought by many to be the toughest race route possibly in the world. Oh and yes do all this on one of the hottest weekends in 25 years.
No small task for birds set up to race 7 days earlier. With nearly no exercise at all in the previous 20 days. Paul however was very confident of succeeding, he maintained that he had sent the best he had.
They were well fed, having stocked up on high energy feeding, over the previous 7 days. All had been given his home brewed natural pigeon tonic. This he has been making for at least 30 years and feeds to his birds in the build up to the french races. All were in great condition in the hand. Most importantly all were bred by him and all from matched pairings.
The Long wait begins:
He had confidence in the birds. Paul believed if they had went a week earlier they would have been serious contenders for the Millar Gold cup.
As Saturday evening drew to a close. It was obvious there would be no first day bird from Le Mans. The visibility had deteriorated early with many of the valleys visible from his loft filling with mist from early evening.
A check on the INFC website told us that there were 54 brave pigeons recorded in Ireland on the second day. There were still a lot of very good birds out there Paul was confident one would make it.
Our good friend Jim Emerton had forecast earlier that day. Sunday morning would be Paul’s time to clock from Le Mans. So it was with an air of cautious optimism that we settled down for the night vigil.
D day D for destiny
Sunday was forecast to have clear skies, light winds but once again to be blisteringly hot. It would be a brave pigeon that made it.
Sunday morning at 7.05, as the resident Jackdaws and swallows headed out for the day a pigeon landed. It had came from the West, French birds normally return to Paul’s loft from the South. This bird had obviously been drawn up the centre of Ireland the night before. Turning for home on the final leg at daybreak of the 3rd day.
When Paul returned from the loft he told me that it was a Kings cup bird. All Paul could say was “poor little bugger there wasn’t another 50 yards left in him”.The heat was a huge factor. The sheer guts of this young cock to get up on the 3rd morning and come on home, meant only one thing. Instant retirement.
He had earned the right to his place in the stock loft. He has everything Paul believes is essential for the tough long distant pigeon flying into Ireland. Small to medium sized, well balanced and most of all full of will power and determination. Most other birds would just have stopped out when as tired as he was.
This guy just didn’t know when he was beaten he wanted home, nothing was going to stop him.
62nd open INFC Kings Cup:
He is a chequer yearling cock. We would later find out had won 1st club, 53rd North section and 62nd open national. He had flown the 466 miles 1,303 yards gruelling race distance, at a velocity of 399.05ypm.
As I sorted through the breeding records looking to see what he was off. It was no surprise when I discovered his sire was Paul’s 4th national INFC Friendship national Quimper 2013 EXTREME HEAT. His dam was Paul’s 4th national INFC Friendship national Quimper 2014 TOUGH LADY.
Both parents had won their positions as yearlings. TOUGH LADY was in fact a late bred being only 7 months old when finishing 1st club, 1st fed, 4th open. The only bird home in club and fed from the race, in the 3 day race-time.
40 year old record broken:
As the euphoria and relief settled, Paul jumped from the chair. “we’ve done it Mr. Bailie, that is a Le Mans bird”. I turned and saw the splendid sight of a chequer hen drop from the roof to the landing board. For the first time in 3 days a state of calm replaced Paul’s normal agitated persona. As he headed to the loft to clock possible history. All he said was “that’s the hen I was telling you about when we were hampering, I would know her anywhere”.
So it proved to be, as if there had been any doubt. The hen that I had put an asterisk against on the race list was indeed back in the loft. In doing so, she was writing herself and Paul Swindell into the history books.
For the first time in the 40 year history of the BICC. A bird had been clocked into Ireland from a race organised by the BICC. Many had tried including Paul himself on several occasions. All had failed and there in his loft was a yearling hen. Yes I did say yearling, that had just flown 516miles.
Queen of Le Mans:
The hen from this point on to be known as Queen of Le Mans, is out of an 07 chequer cock named the Wizard. He has sired many French pigeons, including a hen that flew France 5 times.
Dam of Queen of Le Mans is a Blue hen that Paul had bred especially for his stock loft. She is a daughter of Extreme Heat 1st club, 4th national INFC Friendship national Quimper 2013. When paired to Queen of the Rain 1st club, 2nd national INFC Olympic commemorative friendship national Quimper 2012.
Within and hour and 37 minutes Paul had clocked from the Kings cup with a son of Extreme Heat. Then made history when he clocked a grand daughter of Extreme Heat from Le Mans with the BICC. Reality then struck, we had to verify the bird. Now for all members in the BICC this will probably be old hat. For someone from Ireland this was a first, it had never been done before.
We knew that we had to ensure this was perfect or we risked jeopardising the result. A double check with Carol from the BICC and I made the most nervous phone call of my life to an automated service. Having received the verification code we could relax. 40 minutes later I checked the BICC website and there it was 1st Irish section Le Mans 1 P. Swindell Co. Down.
He had done it, what had been said was impossible had been achieved. What was needed now was a second bird to prove it wasn’t a lucky fluke.
Paul for ever the pragmatist insisted on taking his clock round to be checked and run off. At this point special mention and thanks must be given to Richard Donnelly Newry City HPS and Tommy Mooney Millvale HPS. Both gave up their time on a Sunday morning to ensure this remarkable result was verified. Once again many thanks to Carol Francis at the BICC who talked Richard through the BICC procedure with the clock and with the verification sheets.
Remember this was a first and no one wanted to make any mistake that could have affected the result. Once complete and with the clock reset it was back to the loft.
King of Le Mans
As the morning wore on, Pat Shields a top local sprint racer joined Paul and myself for the on going vigil. Indeed it was Pat who saw the 2nd bird arrive, a red cock, this time from the North. Again like the Kings cup bird earlier in the morning from completely the wrong direction.
The only explanations could be that it had either been pulled past the loft by another batch. Unlikely as the returns from the Kings cup were few and far between. The more likely answer being that it had crossed the Irish Sea much further North. Probably crossing south of the Isle of Man from the North Wales coast.
What we didn`t know at that time was that the red cock had been hit by a hawk somewhere on route. Pat saw that 3 feathers were missing from the centre of its tail when he handled him later whilst getting a photo taken. The fact that he had been hawked was even more poignant. As within 60 seconds of his safe return to the loft a male sparrow hawk skimmed over the loft roof chasing its prey.
The red cock from here forward will be known as King of Le Mans, like the Queen of Le Mans he is a bird bred by Paul. His sire is a cock we call Double Toes as he is a double grandson of Dave Goddards Toenails cock. His dam is another top stock hen from top Irish national bloodlines.
As the day went on social media was going crazy. The congratulations from around the world was humbling. For several hours Paul was answering calls from many local and English fanciers. All genuinely pleased that the hoodoo had been vanquished someone had cracked the BICC Irish section. Amongst the congratulatory calls I had was a very welcome call with John Tyreman president of the BICC. John warmly asked me to pass on his congratulations to Paul. John along with Jim Emerton and Geoff Preece, has long been a great supporter of the Irish region within the BICC.
Perhaps the most appreciated congratulations posted on social media was a video by Michael Feeney on the Eclipse 650 club facebook page. The man is a genuinely nice guy who couldn`t have been more pleased about Pauls success. Even though as he said somewhat tongue in cheek in the video it had to be done he just would rather it had been him.
Prince of Le Mans:
2 birds home a Queen and a King, the perfect breeding pair to base a family on. Then mid afternoon a 3rd bird landed. This time it was up to Pat to catch and clock. Paul had left the loft for a while, to ensure that the 2nd bird had been verified through the clock. The 3rd bird was a black pied yearling cock again home bred. King and Queen safely home this had obviously to be the Prince. So again another bird retired to the stock loft with the name Prince of Le Mans.
His sire is a blue cock called Blue Paul. He is the sire of Tough Lady 4th open INFC Friendship national Quimper 2014. His dam is a chequer pied stock hen called Wilkos Girl. Dam of 82nd open INFC yearling national 2014. G/dam to 29th open INFC Friendship national Quimper 2015.
A wonderful day for a split second seemed to be getting better. When a fourth bird hit the roof but this was a false alarm. As it peeled away north someone was going to get a very tired bird home later that Sunday evening.
I had originally titled this piece VINDICATION and so I believe Sunday 8th of July 2018 will always be for Paul Swindell. In 2017 I wrote a piece recounting the exploits of a dark chequer pied cock NEVER GIVE UP. Who I claimed as the longest flying living pigeon in Ireland having flown over 764 miles from Mont de Marsan International.
The amount of sick jibes and downright slanderous comments that were made about the cock, Paul and myself were unbelievable. The fact still remains true, it is the longest flying LIVING pigeon in Ireland.
That is the past, like NEVER GIVE UP these 3 wonderful birds returned home. Unlike NEVER GIVE UP the Queen, King and Prince of Le Mans did so in race time. They can now rightly be called record breakers. Paul Swindell can feel vindicated in his beliefs regarding long distance pigeons into Northern Ireland.