Years ago, not long after I had begun racing pigeons, a club member came up to my basket of pigeons whilst I stood in the queue waiting to send to a race. He looked into the basket for a minute or two and pointed to one, “that’s your best pigeon” he said. I was a little dumbfounded because he had indeed picked out my best pigeon, out of a basket containing twelve yearlings. When I agreed and told him he was correct, I obviously asked how he could pick it out, without even handling them.
That man was Fred Walters, who we lost at a very young age of 52 a few years later and he would tease me for months by withholding the information. He was a top sprint man in the town and was always in the mix, and as per usual for the best fanciers at that time, he was very secretive.
The eighties was a period of time when the widowhood system was a mystery to most and those who had mastered it, played their cards close to their chests. So I was not surprised when he would not divulge his selection of my pigeon, but I would not let it rest either.
Upon reflection, if he did tell me immediately, the lesson would not have sunk in so deep into my memory because, at that time, it really annoyed me that a man could possess such a useful tool, without out passing it on to others.
Then one night, in the closed season, a club meeting was held in the local pub around 7:30pm. It soon concluded and as everyone drifted away home I found myself alone with Fred Walters and got my opportunity to listen. He then recounted on how a long deceased fancier who had raced pigeons for 70 years told him to look out for pigeons with all white toe nails. Not conclusive, he said but if it possessed all white toe nails, it could be a good pigeon.
Now I know this may sound a little silly to some, but I am not one who would close my ears to anything, and neither should you be, because he went on to say that one day he had gone to buy some stock from a Champion in another area. His passion was for the Busschaert strain, which was very popular at that time. And when talking to the seller he asked if he could take his pick of some pigeons in an aviary of which the seller agreed but would not catch each and every one for scrutiny.
“No problem” Fred said, and pointed to a cock and a hen that he wanted to buy. The seller was astounded that he had picked out his best pair and flatly refused to part with them!
We should never forget the old masters teachings in our endeavours to succeed.
I was recounting this story to Jonathan as we were on our way to Louella Pigeon World, where Michael Massarella had agreed to give Jonathan a few minutes look at the very best Champion Marathon pigeons housed at their lofts. And when we arrived Michael graciously invited us into his office where he had four pigeons boxed up for Jonathan to see.
Before he got each one out he recapped its breeding and the bloodlines right back to the pre war years to emphasize the real need for royal blood for 700-800 mile races, regardless of whether the pigeons were big, small or indifferent. The breeding for that discipline had to be there and so as he handed the pigeons one by one to Jonathan, wide eyed with admiration, he pointed out to me that the pigeon had white toenails.
Considering these pigeons had been purchased by Louella Pigeon World for very large sums of money, based on their racing records, it conveniently reiterated the lesson I had given Jonathan for that day, and when Michael asked what we were looking at he immediately said “over the years I have heard it all but that one really takes the biscuit” and told us not to be silly, “it is only the basket that counts”
We both agreed with that and I told him of the story I had recounted to Jonathan earlier that day, so that is why he was looking and indeed of the four champion pigeons on show, they all possessed the white toenails!
So off he went, into the breeding lofts to fetch another champion recently purchased, shaking his head in disbelief. When he returned with the pigeon in hand, he was smiling and said “Well OK, this one has white toe nails as well, but there’s nothing in it”
And in all reality he may be right but the lesson Jonathan really got that day was to never close your ears to anything.
I must convey a huge thank you to Michael Massarella of Louella Pigeon World, for giving up his valuable time for my young guest and teaching him the real benefits of breeding to line and choosing pigeons by their racing results and not fads and it has to be said that I personally agree whole-heartedly. The basket is the only true selector, and in my line of work photographing National winners over all distances, I see and hear all sorts! However, I think it’s an interesting topic.