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Hard-Shell Game : To Turtle-Racing Aficionados, the Thrill of the Chase Isn't Always Restricted to the Action on the Track

January 07, 1988|KENNETH J. GARCIA | Times Staff Writer

Right before post time down at the track, the owners and trainers gather 'round the turf club, drinking beer and swapping stories about some of the great races of all time.

Turtle racing is like that. Somehow you get hooked on it, and before you know it, you are obsessed by it. You are spending all of your free time building up a championship turtle-racing stable, collecting hundreds of turtle-racing trophies and thinking about putting your prize turtle out to stud.

And every Thursday, you are down at the track outside Brennan's Pub in Venice, talking about who was the greatest racer, scale for scale, that ever crawled across the circular green carpet. You are wearing a jacket with a turtle insignia, a button that proclaims some form of "turtle power," and handing out business cards hailing yourself as a bona fide turtle trader.

No Easy Task

And if you are Jim (Duffy) Duffer, you are asking yourself when it's all going to end.

Duffer is one of the two men who first caught turtle fever, spread it, and now openly wonders whether the shell game has gotten out of hand. He has been the emcee for the turtle races for almost 13 years now--including many nights announcing in a velvet green tuxedo--and he acknowledges that the wear and tear has caught up with him.

"The whole thing is so dumb, I can't explain it," he said, surveying the 200 or so spectators who turned out at the track recently. "It's almost like a cult thing, but that doesn't even describe it. All I know is that I've been hung over almost every Friday for 13 years."

At first, the idea of turtle racing was just a good promotional gimmick for Duffer's friend, pub owner Ab Lawrence, who stole the idea from Zack's Bar in Sausalito after a visit there in 1975. It was just a lark, Duffer said, but then the lines to get into the pub started going around the block on Thursdays and turtle fanatics started emerging from the shadows.

Hash Feder brags that he has missed only five Thursdays in nearly seven years. He passes out business cards boasting "state-of-the-art turtle racing."

Steve Wisolowski started out with one turtle and now carts about 25 down to the track each week "in order to get more trophies." So far, he has won roughly 300 of them.

David Vincent personally caught the 30 or so turtles in his stable around his home turf in Baton Rouge, La. He has been doing it for eight years and says flatly: "Turtle racing is serious business."

Dan Brown thinks that the whole idea is a joke. Fittingly, he has named his turtle Touche, after the cartoon character. He and his friend, Mark Cosgrove, have been taking the turtle down to the bar in a small blue thermos for about six months now, watching Touche get trounced in race after race. Touche finished second once, but it was a fluke. The only way he might win is if the other turtles ran the race on their backs.

"Some people take it seriously, but they miss the point," Brown said. "It's funny, it's entertaining, and it's totally off the wall. How can you take turtle racing seriously?"

For Brown and the vast majority of people who come out to watch the reptiles run, or rather, crawl, the real lure of turtle racing is not in the race.

While horse racing may be the sport of kings, turtle racing is the sport of singles. It's an excuse to watch the races and play the field.

"Turtles are a great conversation piece," Cosgrove explained. "They're cute, like puppies, and girls are totally into it. They always want to know about your turtle."

Said Duffer: "It's like a social event. It's beyond a bar scene. There's a curiosity factor that brings people out. And they never go away."

On a recent, chilly Thursday, the curious saw a blend of the wackiness and seriousness that typifies the world of competitive turtle racing. More than 100 turtles were entered in the contests, which are broken down into eight size categories, ranging from miniature to tortoise. Before the races, the turtles are kept in their "stables," which are 25- and 50-quart containers filled with water. A peek into the coolers of some of the serious competitors is like a glimpse into the undersea world of Jacques Cousteau, with dozens of turtles climbing and sliding all over each other. Most are not fed the day of the race.

Feder, who runs Direct Connection Racing Stables for turtles, said the activity is like a case of pregame jitters. And they always know when it's game day by the actions of their favorite prey.

"The turtles can tell it's Thursday night," he said, "because the goldfish breathe a lot easier."

At 10 p.m., or whenever Duffer is ready to announce the races, the miniatures are taken out of their coolers and placed in the center of the green track, behind a metal cylinder. As with the other turtles, the owners rub their shells with their fingers, getting them ready for the races. Occasionally, an owner will throw a towel over one of them.

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