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'The Stupidest Sport in America'?


"I got the turtle right here. His name is . . . Psycho II . "

With apologies to Frank Loesser, "Guys and Dolls" and that fabled thoroughbred, Paul Revere, let us introduce you to the sport of turtle racing.

We begin with a visit with John Davis and LeAnne Warren, who share a house in Venice with eight turtles that race under the colors of their Cowabunga Stable.

Passersby do a double-take as they spy this flotilla of turtles paddling to and fro in window-view tanks.

There's a midget turtle named Wolfman (or, LeAnne concedes, Wolfwoman--it's hard to tell).

There's The Prime Minister. "We don't know which country," John explains; he came to them prenamed.

Over there's Blister, the speedy if somewhat snappish pride of Cowabunga.

Now, on the surface, John and LeAnne would seem to be just plain folks. John, 35, a county beach maintenance worker, is studying to be a geologist. LeAnne, 32, is technical operations manager for the International Channel Network (cable channel 18).

But when they tell people that they are jockeys of sorts, John says, eyebrows lift: "Yes, of course you do (that). And which mental institution do you frequent?"

John describes his sport as "like horse racing, on a reptilian level." He got hooked in 1989 when, having some X-rays, he learned that the technician, Steven Webb, was a racer. The films were hardly dry before proselytizer Webb had offered John a turtle from his stable.

John chose Blister, sort of the Harold Stassen of turtles, a perpetual also-ran. Blister has gone on to become a 60-trophy winner, the pride of Cowabunga, claimant to the world land-speed record. "A genetically superior turtle," John boasts.

Now, if you've seen one turtle, you haven't seen them all. There are water turtles like Blister (a red-eared slider), box turtles (which are kind of amphibious) and land turtles.


Thursday nights are turtle time at Brennan's restaurant/bar in Marina del Rey where Cowabunga's thoroughbreds race for glory, trophies and maybe a bottle of champagne.

For John, taking the turtles to Brennan's is "like taking a kid out for ice cream." And he's convinced that "turtles have a competitive spirit."

Well, perhaps. But some of them just sit there and blink.

On a recent Thursday, John and LeAnne were sizing up the competition.

Harry Kula, a Delta Airlines cargo worker, is there with See Spot Run and Psycho II and the rest of Makaha Stable.

Joe Gresko (American Racing Stable) has brought Bonnie and Clyde, Lascivious Lady and Slow Poke, who did a cameo--as a turtle--in "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."

Lynn Nelson, the official turtle racing secretary-clocker-recordkeeper, has her rent-a-turtles, Sproggy and Fifi and the others. At $3 per turtle, she'll take home about $15, which buys turtle food.

Eric Bauer, a Taco Bell executive from West L.A., is turtleless tonight. His favorite, Dawn, died a few months back of old age. Dawn raced here for two years and never won but, Bauer said, she had "very stylish" legs.

"All the other turtles would race out, and she'd just sit there looking attractive. She was the centerfold of turtles."

The track crowd drifts in, filling the bleachers and the semicircle of folding chairs on Brennan's patio. The starting gate, which looks suspiciously like the cut-off top of a plastic trash can, is in place in the center of the circular green track.

The turtles, in their coolers, seem oblivious. For one thing, their hearing isn't very keen. Or maybe they're just hungry. Owners often withhold the usual culinary delights--beef heart, crickets--on race day so the turtles will carry less weight.

Kula swears he had a Chinese box turtle that would hit his head on the side of the tank to get attention. LeAnne says turtles can tell time. John thinks they're "very gregarious." But how bright are turtles?

As turtles get their pre-race rubdowns and wetting-downs, emcee Kelly Bakst is explaining the rules. No shadows allowed on the track. And no pointing. "Turtles can definitely spot their owners in a crowd," John explains.

Well, let the races begin . . .

As the turtles line up in each weight division--midgets to monsters--the crowd counts down with the emcee . . . 5 . . . 4 . . . 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . .

John and LeAnne have high hopes for Blister, whose main competition in the large class is Gresko's Lascivious Lady. The lady, with 562 wins under her shell, dashes across the finish line for 563. In a rematch, Blister will redeem himself.

John and LeAnne wince as they watch their turtles race toward the finish and then--as turtles seem want to do--turn and amble back to the gate. "Mush!" yells John, urging Cowabunga's Booger on in the monster division. In a photo finish, he's edged out by a turtle named Stan's Our Man.

Later this month, the 18th anniversary of turtle racing at Brennan's will be celebrated. Both turtles and jockeys may turn up in tuxes.

Bakst, the emcee, is hoping to jazz things up a bit with penalty flags and comedy routines.

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