The Magic of the Tarbes Grand National
When I visit National winners, the very next day after their triumph over the whole nation, they are walking on air, the phone never stops ringing with congratulations and a memorable moment is forged into their pigeon-racing career. But of all the National Races I have covered over recent years, there is nothing in UK pigeon racing scene that compares to the magic of the National Flying Club’s “Tarbes Grand National” it is something very special indeed. I have witnessed every emotion around this race from jubilation to disappointment, and I have seen uninhibited tears from grown men due to the realisation of their achievement.
It was in 2012 that I visited my very first Tarbes National winner, which on this occasion was one of the recognised long distance fanciers, Mark Bulled of Harlow. Mark will get goose pimples on his arms at the very thought of racing Tarbes, so you can imagine how high his emotions were running the day after his Grand National win and it was a pleasure to meet him and his young family. He used to race with his late father Cecil and indeed the bloodlines in his loft go way back to the 1950’s Westcott pigeons, as he has continued Cecil’s lifetime of selection. Cecil has gone on record as to the prowess of a hen sitting 8 days on eggs when racing from long distances, and Mark told me with a voice broken with emotion that he wore his Dad’s scarf in the garden when waiting for the Tarbes winner which he called “Legacy”. Mark is a gentleman in the sport and truly continues his Dad’s love and devotion for winning the 14-15 hour flight on the day.
Whilst visiting Mark’s loft he was full of admiration for Alwyn Hill’s pigeon “Wingdown” who was second in the 2012 Tarbes race, having previously been fourth open the year earlier and seventh open two years before that! A truly fantastic Tarbes pigeon that will do down in history as one of the very best and we discussed a few other fantastic long distance pigeons that had become household names within the sport.
In 2013 there was a mid day liberation and the following day I had to go to Mark Gilberts loft to photograph his BICC winner from Agen. The NFC Tarbes Grand National is the one race, which Mark would truly love to win and had sent a strong team. He agreed that I could time my visit to wait with him for his pigeons, so when I had completed my photo report, we settled down along with his father Geoff, for his first arrival. It was over the next couple of hours that I observed in that man every aspect of anticipation from expectation to self-doubt. A phone call gave us the news that Gary Moody had timed in Portsmouth at 14:54 and Mark felt that he needed to be in soon after to win outright.
As the minutes went painfully by, with Mark resigned to thinking another year was slipping away when directly out of the south came a blue hen and trapped. At first he thought it was a latecomer from the Perpignan race and strolled casually over to his ETS system within the loft. A few seconds later he emerged with a huge grin and came running down the path arms outstretched like a child playing airplanes. This was provisionally confirmed in first position after his telephone verification and painful hours followed as the northern fanciers also began to time in their first arrivals.
I had made arrangements to visit another loft on the way home to Leicester and when I arrived the leaderboard was consulted with Mark still on pole position. So it went on, every ten minutes or so checking with me being thrilled he was hanging in there. Even driving up the motorway to Leicester late in the evening I stopped in the services to call a friend to look at the leaderboard for me and that’s when it hit, the huge metaphorical club crashing down on all hopes and elation I had witnessed.
I felt gutted for Mark to learn the B & P Winter partnership had timed at 19:57 to take pole position. I knew how much it meant to him and for the rest of the journey I drove in silence as if it was my own disappointment. The very next morning I called Barry Winter to congratulate him and make arrangements to go to Howden to take my photographs for the publications. He found it difficult to talk to me. Of course! He was feeling the huge sway of emotions too and often broke down during the call. So with camera on board I set of immediately to visit and it was there that I realized the true meaning to this race of which everyone involved was feeling. It is so special, the man still could not speak without his voice breaking when I got there and I had wait for composure to make the photographs. We then settled into the story of how they planned their season around Tarbes and the bloodlines they had acquired to do the job, and all the choices, which covered several years in the making.
Talking about their thoughts from the evening before, when they were trying to guess where their birds had pitched for the evenings rest and from which direction the birds would come the next evening. They told me he came dead in line from a distant landmark and I asked Peter to liberate the winner from the far end of the garden, in line with the landmark, to try to capture a recreation for them to keep.
I set up my equipment and with everything in place, gave the signal to release the bird. As he approached the loft I fired off several shots in my camera and as we reviewed the images on the back, a hand landed firmly on my shoulder. That’s it! Barry said and tears came into his eyes once again and I was thrilled to share their moment as they have gone on to become a very consistent loft in the following Tarbes Nationals and are highly regarded by their peers, as one of the very best long distance lofts in the country.
In 2014 I waited with anticipation for the day to come and wondered who and where I would be going to visit. The leaderboard came up and although I did not know Trevor Hazell at that time, the town of Sandown was put into Google maps to see which area it was. Sandown Park racecourse came up first and I began to make my plans for the following day, but something was not right, I could not see other prominent fanciers in the area on the leaderboard so back to Google I went and it was further down the page I saw “Sandown, Isle of Wight”
I called Trevor who confirmed I did need to catch a ferry and plans were made for a visit the next day. At 4am I left home in Leicester and by 11:30 I arrived at his loft. As I was welcomed into his home I was met by the smell of cooking and evidently his wife was making a lot of food for a party. The doorbell rang and over the next few minutes several of his fellow fanciers on the island poured through the door.
The camaraderie was fantastic, they were thrilled for him and the atmosphere was filled with genuine joy for the NFC Tarbes Grand National to have been won on the Isle of Wight. They told me of past National winners and how every time a good national pigeon is clocked, the nail biting begins as the race unfolds further up country. Again the emotion bubbled up when I asked Trevor to recount the day’s events and the history of his winning hen, which can be traced back to an American strain called Leverne Schumanns, which Mr Osman imported, into the country.
In 2015 Mark Gilbert made the race his number one priority for the season, he carefully schooled his team and entered a good amount to cover all eventualities. He finished a fantastic second, third and fourth on the open result so a visit to him was not to be that next day, but the loft that did hold first open position has since fallen from grace and the name has been removed from the results history. So although he did not receive the genuine accolade of winning the Tarbes Grand National in 2015, he can indeed hold his head high and I must say his silence over the whole situation speaks volumes as to his stature as a Gentleman in the sport. Fanciers with a lot less to loose have had a lot more to say about the whole unfortunate and upsetting saga. Mark knows that sometimes “less is more” and I am one of many who hold him in very regard for his result in 2015, but more importantly he has the patience and resolve this race requires, whatever setbacks he has endured.
In 2016, an early liberation into a very light head wind and hot temperatures gave a slim hope of some birds being home on the day and six fantastic pigeons actually did make the home lofts late in the evening but the race really began to unfold on the following day. This is when the magic of this race unfolds, as birds roost for the night on their way home for a few hours only for the fittest to continue their journey at the break of dawn and as the distance increases so to does the quality of the breeding. Fanciers and individual pigeons that are consistently at the top of the result from Tarbes year in year out are truly the very cream of our sport. They carve their names on the section and open trophies with performances that will be talked about for years and I would like to recount the Presentation speech made by our Chairman Phil Curtis when he said;
A very early timer at 5am the next day to Bob and Anthony Besant was something they will never forget and in section I Alwyn Hill and Keith Bush both timed early birds. But there were 4 more gallant birds heading home into Yorkshire, (at which point Phil’s voice broke a little) two going to Pete and Barry Winter, one going to Nick Adshead and another going to Phil’s own loft to take first Section K. A large round of applause ensued as Phil composed himself to make a special mention to the North East flying over 800 miles, to M Anderson & Sons winning section N.
But the race was still on and the one to catch was Mal Hope in Telford who timed his British Barcelona Club Bordeaux winner which was then followed a anxious few hours to see if he could actually win the Tarbes Grand National, but it was not to be as Micky Locke right up in the Wirral timed a really wonderful little hen to win the day. Phil’s friends in the Wirral had told him that Micky had been so confident that he was going to win the MNFC Bordeaux race with his pigeon he had been practicing what he called his “Bordeaux Walk” to collect the trophy. But on the Saturday Micky had flown from Vire, and in his own words he did not have the best of races, so on the Sunday morning it was with a little trepidation that he waited for his pigeons from the longer races. He need not have worried because he timed his pigeon to win the NFC Tarbes Grand National and the Bordeaux walk became “The Tarbes Walk”.
Why is the Tarbes Grand National so special? Because along with acquiring the very best bloodlines possible, the devotee long distance fancier is required to view the sport from a different perspective, as it often takes considerable time and patience to achieve the holy grail of 1st Open Tarbes along with the sporting immortality it brings. Patience is defined as the capacity to tolerate delay, problems or suffering without becoming annoyed or disheartened and I have found that the very best long distance fanciers have this quality in abundance. They adopt an amiable husbandry, with a view to nurturing the love of the loft to the highest degree, in order to capitalize on the abilities that have been bred for generations into their marathon pigeons.
Over the years I have been lucky enough to gain personal access to some of the best long distance flyers in the country and I always make it my business to seek their knowledge. First and foremost most advocate up to 8 hours on the wing as a precursor to Tarbes. All the preceding races during the preparation are aimed at getting hours on the wing rather than winning a club or federation prize and if there is an opportunity of a head wind training spin, it is taken without question but always careful not to break the will of the pigeons. The feeding of these marathon flyers takes weeks rather than days to accumulate enough stored energy to fly hour after hour over hundreds of miles, and one Champion once told me his approach to feeding in the off season was with a view to Tarbes six months later, such is the build up he considers is required.
These birds are different to others, so therefore the fanciers approach should be different too. They will not strike off at breakneck speed towards the loft on a training chuck, nor will they be in the clock very often under 400 miles, but they can be relied upon to pitch down to the loft in the dusk or rise very early the next morning to continue their flight, and it is these qualities that legends are made of. Few pigeons achieve “household name” status in our sport outside of the commercial circus thrown at us in a constant string of paper champions, but those that have truly achieved it on merit, will have done so from the NFC Tarbes Grand National.
For 2017 race program the race has moved forward by three weeks to be flown on the longest day, there will no doubt be many more day birds in the south, but history shows no one can rest assured until long into the following day, 750 miles plus is where the special pigeons shine and history made. Will you be one who has taken up the challenge? If you do I can promise you the best days of your racing career are ahead of you and it will bring forth your personal qualities. When your favorite pigeon has passed the selection process and has been sent to a few races in the Federation, I can guarantee you will get the butterflies in your stomach as you enter him or her onto the race entry sheet for Tarbes. You know that now, above all else it’s time from them to step up to the mark. You know it’s going to be six or seven hundred miles of difficult conditions, requiring hour after hour of strenuous effort. You know only the strongest constitution, motivated by a superior love for home will prevail as this free sprit makes it way steadily towards your skyward gaze. You know when you see them pitch for the loft as darkness falls or at the first light of dawn, your voice will break as you give your family the good news and if it does not, you have not yet grasped the true meaning of Pigeon Racing.
I sometimes hear “Tarbes is all season for just one race” but it should not be taken so lightly, as it takes many years of preparation to perfect and sometimes little teasers of success may come along, but nothing will compare to the standing ovation you will receive from all your peers on presentation night, as you make your way to the front of the hall of fame. Get your speech ready and Good Luck, I hope to be visiting your loft very soon.