Getting his ducks in a row
Robert W. Duck, of Bosque Farms, was listening to his car radio while driving to work one morning in 1980. The radio host, Larry Arhens, was interviewing an organizer of Deming’s first Great American Duck Race, scheduled for Aug. 23-24 of that year.
Robert thought it would be fun to enter two ducks he had recently purchased at a feed store in Peralta. Who knew, maybe the Duck name would bring them good luck.
And so Robert Duck entered Deming’s first duck race, held at the Luna County Courthouse Park, popularly known as Duck Downs. Robert remembers that no one believed that his name was really Duck when he went to enter his birds for the competition.
Racing on land like a duck takes to water, one of his feathered friends finished third in a competition that began with 186 ducks. Not a bad start.
Becoming a champion
Encouraged, Robert returned to Deming the following year. He entered seven ducks, calling them the Magnificent Seven. Four of his seven birds qualified for the final heat of the 400-duck competition. One of them, the BFD Express, waddled to victory, winning first prize.
In fact, Robert and his brood plucked first prize in each of the next three years. He bowed out for two years so others could enjoy winning, but, never a lame duck, he returned to win four more years in a row.
After a time out of three years, he and his ducks returned to win five straight championship races.
Robert’s victories were especially sweet because each of them was won by a different bird. The Bosque Farms trainer showed his competition that he and his flock were all they were quacked up to be.
Robert enjoyed the races and especially the fun he, his competitors and the increasingly large crowds experienced each year. As Robert puts it, “You can’t watch a duck race without smiling.”
Robert Duck was never one to duck out on a challenge. Joining the U.S. Army when he was 20 and the New Mexico Army National Guard when he was 33, he played the saxophone as a member of the 44th Army Band for 21 years. He retired as a first sergeant.
He learned business by completing a master’s degree in business administration and opening his own jewelry store in Albuquerque in 1979.
He, his wife, Kathy, and their two children, Bryce and Sharon, moved to Bosque Farms in 1977. Their acre and a half of land gave them plenty of room to raise horses, dogs and ducks.
Robert continued to have fun racing ducks, but began to take his new hobby a bit more seriously. After some experimenting, Robert concluded that Mallards were the fasted running ducks of all duck breeds.
He ordered 100 Mallard ducklings per year, usually from the Whistling Wings hatchery in Hanover, Ill., known as the Mallard capital of the world.
Robert raised his animals with high-protein feed mixes and lots of vitamins. He trained them each day, timing them to see who were the fastest. The fastest 25 made the cut. He released the remaining 75 into the wild along the Rio Grande.
For many years, when people asked Robert the secret to his success, he usually fed them a lot of quack. He told one inquisitive reporter that he fed his ducks a steady diet of green chile and placed ice cream at the end of the racetrack to inspire them.
More open today, he says that one of his “secrets” was training his ducks to race on 24-foot tracks, knowing that actual tracks were only 16-feet long. Sixteen foot races seemed easy for birds used to racing 24 feet.
Robert clearly remembers race days in Deming. Competitors came from throughout the Southwest.
One team from Arizona even arrived in an 18-wheeler with an air-conditioned interior for their ducks.
Duck owners sized up the competition before the races began. Robert says that race organizers held a Calcutta pool for the final race as a way for duck owners to bet on the outcome. This illegal practice was later stopped, although betting in the crowd continued.
Robert recalls that some judges drank too much on race day, potentially marring the sport and its results. But no one dared cry “fowl” or resorted to “fowl” language if they lost.
Robert brought the fastest 25 of the 100 ducks he trained each year. Heats were run throughout the weekend until the eight fastest birds competed in the finals.
The excitement was thrilling. As Robert described his handling of his winning duck in 1982, “I just tickled his ribs to get him excited, said a prayer and let him go.”
And then it was over in a matter of seconds. In fact, one of Robert’s ducks holds the world record for a 16-foot race: .83 seconds. Robert claims he inspired his flock with the slogan, “Be a winner or be dinner.”
Prize money was good: $50 for winning each heat plus $500 for third place in the finals, $1,000 for second place and $2,000 for the top prize.
With multiple ducks in the races, Robert won as much as $4,500 in a single year. He estimates that he feathered his nest with about $50,000 (before de-duck-tions) in all his years of racing.
Robert and his web-footed friends were so successful in Deming that some duck owners became discouraged and dropped out of the races. As a result, Robert agreed to hang up his wings for several years at a time.
Racing officials went so far as to change the rules in 1997. Notified of the changes, Robert good-naturedly declared them to be “just ducky.” He certainly didn’t want to ruffle any feathers.
Now, instead of racing their own ducks, people of all ages are given birds to race on race day, meaning that anyone could be a winner. This year, the two big winners were a 9-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy. Each took home $1,415.
Meanwhile, Robert and his animals received local, national and even international attention. Robert had a lot to quack about.
Locally, he was named an honorary citizen of Deming and Luna County. He and his charges appeared on TV shows such as “The Tonight Show” and “Good Morning, America.”
He has been interviewed on radio stations broadcast from as far away as Canada and Australia. Associated Press and United Press International stories about his success appeared in newspapers throughout the country. Feature articles appeared in magazines Such as People, Ducks Unlimited and Sports Illustrated (four times).
On the road again
Duck racing became such a part of Robert’s life by 1999 that he got his ducks in a row, sold his jewelry business and migrated with his ducks across the country.
The only touring duck show in the United States, his traveling show has appeared at 265 state fairs, RV shows and similar events as far east as Maine and as far west as California. That’s an average of 22 events a year.
Only logistics have prevented him from traveling to Alaska, Hawaii, the Bahamas, Australia and China, although he’s gotten invitations from all these places and others. Robert keeps about 80 ducks and travels with about half of them (mostly females) in a specially designed, air-conditioned, well-insulated van.
His favorite — and fastest — duck was named Baldy, although she had other stage names as well. His oldest duck lived to be 18; most ducks live only 4 to 5 years in the wild.
Maintaining a great sense of humor, Robert and his family have given their birds such appropriate names as “Duck Knipfing,” “Grateful Duck,” “Green Bay Quacker,” “Michael Du-Quack-us” and “Sugar Ray Mallard.” Robert calls himself the “Chief Quacker” and even has a website on the Internet: www.racingducks.com.
Robert chooses the fastest and least cranky (usually female) ducks for each of four daily shows held at events such as the annual Waterfowl Festival in Kennett, Mo. People in the crowd, especially children, get to temporarily name the ducks, race them and win toy prizes.
It’s great fun for whole families, especially because everyone gets to participate and not just observe. Running the races is as easy as water off a duck’s back.
Robert spends much of the year on the road, sharing fun and making others happy. And it’s all because of Robert’s last name.
“If my name would have been Smith or something, I would never have done this,” Duck realizes. “In my wildest imagination, I could not have imagined doing this in my life.”
Even if our imaginations flew wild, we could not image another career in which Robert Duck and his birds of a feather could have won so many well-deserved feathers in their collective racing caps.