Days of swine and races 

There were many fine reasons to wallow in the pastoral surroundings of Mead Gardens for last weekend's "Pig in the Park," the third annual pork-themed fund-raiser for the Mead Gardens Preservation Association. Delicacies were offered by 35 competing barbecue cooks. Tent booths were set up to vend arts, crafts and down-home apparel. Rides and games were provided for the kids.

And then there were the pig races.

As staged by Swifty Swine Racing Pigs of Mobile, Ala., these tests of barnyard land speed answered the burning question, "How long does it take four piglets to perform one lap along an oval-shaped track, in pursuit of the Oreo-cookie-on-a-silver platter reward that awaits them at the finish line?"

According to swinemaster Bobby Tate, the answer was a brief but tail-curling eight to 10 seconds. Emerging from the pigs' trailer on Friday afternoon to oversee the first of two days of hoof-burning action, Tate was full of enthusiasm for the young but exciting sport. His long hair pulled back in a ponytail that poked out from under his straw hat, the proud impresario rattled off an impressive set of stats.

Pigs, he said, can be taught to make like Jesse Owens in only three days, a talent that puts them much higher than dogs on the learning curve. They can attain a velocity of 14 mph when the conditions are right. And as he had learned by hosting charity runs in five Southern states, burnout is high. After the pink and black participants reach three or four months of age, Tate informed, "they're too fat to fit in the starting box." With that, his larynx exploded in a hillbilly giggle that even Jim Varney couldn't have approximated.

Preparing the ham

The gathering crowd of children and adults were told that the hasty hogs were inside the trailer "doing their calisthenics," but a peek within instead revealed that they were penned up and grunting their desire to get on with it. I didn't blame them: The vehicle smelled positively putrid.

While we waited, we watched some baby potbellies cavort around a pet carrier that was placed in the interior of the track. Their mother lay nearby; Tate said she was a retired competitor who was now used as a breeder.

"I ordered 'em with racing stripes," he deadpanned, holding up one of her progeny. "But they came with spots."

The taped blare of a horn announced post time, and Tate's young assistant (also named Robert) gently shied the first four contestants into their respective starting gates with a broom. Tiny numbered bibs were taped to their necks, making them easier to follow when things became a blur.

And then they were off! The eight to 10 seconds Tate had promised went by awfully quickly, with 16 little feet hustling and eight ears slicing through the air on their way to a dreamed-of victory. The winner, Pig Knuckle, made it to the Oreo faster than Dom DeLuise running from a grease fire. The second heat saw the speedy Hammy Kershaw bringing home the bacon with similar urgency.

The third race, though, was a wash-out. A quartet of confused-looking potbellies required more prompting with the broom to even complete the lap. When they reached the finish, they milled about lazily, disinterested in devouring the cookie for our amusement. What did we think they were, pigs?

Going hog wild

The magic was back for the final, feature race, in which all 12 combatants crowded the lanes. In a near photo finish, the valiant Pork Chop -- who had lost the first heat -- was named the winner by a snout.

"The winners go to the petting zoo, and the losers go to Jimmy Dean," Tate drawled into his microphone, prompting me to nervously eye the surrounding barbecue booths. Were we eating the slower specimens of past events?

A trip to Swifty Swine's nearby petting zoo extinguished that theory. Larry Isenring, Tate's partner, took time out from supervising the caressing of baby goats to assure me that the porcine veterans of the sport were cared for via a "retirement fund" that was one of the company's most important endeavors.

The information was right in line with the love of animals Tate exuded. A diligent student of endangered species, he bemoaned the limited knowledge many of today's children possess about the natural world.

"Even the country kids, they don't have animals anymore," Tate lamented.

He had no time for any PETA members who might object to his activities, at least until they got down in the muck with him to care for pigs on a year-round basis. "They got a good thing going here," he defended.

Though I'm no expert, they looked content to me. And why not? They work for 10 seconds at a time, retire early and spend most of their time simply waiting for their next meal. Throw in an endorsement deal for Valvoline, and they'll be happier than pigs in ...

Well, they'll be happy.


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