Racing sheep amble in Emmaville,
bolt in Bideford
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Champion racehorses burst from their starting boxes and charge towards
the finish line, eager to win. Racing sheep, by contrast, usually prefer to
amble. That's why horse races are more popular than sheep races.
The problem of tardy sheep is so serious that it has even been discussed
in Parliament. Addressing fellow members of the New South Wales Legislative
Assembly three years ago, Richard Torbay MP said:
Each year Rothschild Road in Emmaville is cleared for the sheep race,
the income from which supports the town's museum.
sheep are entered into the one kilometre race. Each wears a coat with a
number and the local people pay $5 a head to enter. First prize is $100.
The sheep charge down the street, chased by sheep dogs. Last year was
a bit of a spine-tingler, because none of them wanted to cross the
On the same day the school organises a triathlon and barbecue lunch,
with another barbecue at night.
(If the sheep were warned before the race that the losers would be
barbecued, that would be an incentive for them to run faster.)
year's event, ABC radio presenter Ellen Geraghty reported:
The little town of Emmaville was a hive of activity on Saturday for the
4th annual Mining Museum Sheep Race. The race is famous for its very
slow pace and usually uncooperative sheep. The whole town had a bet on
the race and most of them were there to see the finish.
Scroeder, treasurer of the Emmaville Mining Museum, explains, "the sheep
were coming along great until they nearly got to the finish line, we had
sets of yards each side of the road to keep the sheep from running into
people, and they just about got there and a couple of sheep decided that
they weren't coming in, so they turned around and bolted, hit the back
of the yards, busted the yards open, and just about finished back at the
starting line again!"
Until a few weeks ago, we'd never heard of sheep races. Then, one day, we
heard ABC radio presenter Scott Levi talking about the Booligal Cup. We
turned to the internet for more details and found a rural website,
, which said:
Booligal Sheep Races. Even the sheep dress up for the occasion.
The inaugural Booligal Sheep Races were held in 1998 when locals decided
to have a bit of fun and light relief from the grim prospects of drought
and low commodity prices. Patrons were encouraged to bring along their
merino wether and enter him in The Booligal Cup.
The yearly event has now developed into the main event on the
region's social calendar and into a national (if not international)
event. It has become a major fundraiser for local charities in the tiny
township of Booligal...
2003 winner: 100 Merino wethers compete for the Booligal Cup and the
fantastic prizes on offer. With great sponsorship the Cup has a purse of
$500 along with the prestigious trophy (an antique drench gun mounted on
a red gum block).
Fashions on the Field are restricted to the sheep... Past entries
have included "Thorpeedo" (a sheep in a black speedo swim suit),
numerous versions of "Priscilla Queen of the Desert", The Runaway Bride,
and rugby champions parading their favourite jumpers and colours.
Sheep races are also popular attractions in the United Kingdom. "Twelve
woolly-minded athletes are in training for the race of their lives," Sophie
Hazan reported last month on the website LeedsToday
The competitors are a dozen highly agile sheep preparing to do ovine
athletic battle at a famous North Yorkshire sheep fair. The Wensleydale
and Jacob breeds have been hand picked for the 200 yard sweepstake dash
which has become a popular feature of Masham Sheep Fair, near Ripon...
The chosen flock were selected by founder and organiser of the show
Susan Cunliffe-Lister. "Only the fittest ones are chosen for the races
and we have been putting them through their paces ahead of the event,"
The sheep are tempted to run for the finishing line by one of the
organisers rattling feed in a bucket ahead of the flock... Backers get
caught up in the excitement as the race gets under way, cheering their
sometimes reluctant choices to the line, although some sheep have been
known to stop for a graze on the way.
Even the foot and mouth crisis three years ago did not prevent the
show from going ahead although contestants displayed cardboard cut-out
sheep or models. But even that was a crowd puller.
Then, at last, we found someone who has managed to persuade sheep to run
like racehorses. He's Rick Turner, owner of The Big Sheep Entertainment
in Bideford (pronounced Biddy-ford), Devon, England. Sheep races are a popular daily feature there,
attracting more than 100,000 visitors a year.
Rick claims one of his sheep
established a world record in June 2001 by covering the 220-yard course
(which includes a "ewe-turn") in a near-unbelievable time: just 17 seconds.
"That's faster than any Olympic sprinter can run," he said.
Asked the secret of his success, Rick told us by e-mail:
Our special Friesland milking sheep from Holland, with long legs and
slim build, are the greediest and fastest in the world, and are ideal as
Twice a day the sheep run down the course to be milked, so
they are very familiar with it. They can be seen training on the gallops
about 6.30 am. every day. Because the greediest sheep normally wins, one
of the best indicators for a fine racing sheep is a big belly, although
of course that's also a handicap.
Obviously, like all racing, the going does vary from one day to the
next, and the state of the course does affect the times. The sheep don't
like racing in the wet and the knitted jockeys have been known to fall
off as the sheep try to shake off the rain.
There's often a water jump in wet weather and even though most of the
course has an asphalt surface, it can often get quite muddy and
The jockeys were designed and made by Anne Murray, a designer knitter
who is more used to sending her special knitwear throughout the world.
They are made and stuffed with 100% wool, are light and move with an
urging motion. They are considerably lighter than the sheep's own
fleece. They are apt to take on a rather drunken pose when wet, and will
Our sheep race commentator is an ex-Aussie, Tony Rea, from
Londonderry, NSW, who played cricket with Mark and Steve Waugh in a
State under 21 team some years ago.
Not surprisingly, New Zealand, whose 45 million sheep outnumber the human
population by more than 11 to one, is also planning to hold a sheep race
early next year. The New Zealand Woollymunchers Fine Wine and Lambfest at
Chertsey (South Island) has included an inaugural sheep race in its program
for January 8, 2005. Eight rams will compete in three races on a 40-metre
"Those who attend the festival will have the chance to have a
flutter on the woolly speedsters," said the Ashburton Guardian.
"Events such as this, and Mayfield's pig racing, always prove popular with
Here's hoping they find a sheep capable of challenging that Devon
champion's amazing world record.
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