Fans cheer porcine pace

PIGS DASH FOR MASH

July 15, 1992|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Staff Writer

DARNESTOWN -- Merle Mills talks sweetly to the pigs.

"Come on, come on," he says in a gentle voice as he cajoles the 4-week-old pigs into the starting gate. "Let's go, let's go."

The pinkish-white Yorkshires, ugly and cute at the same time, dart into the gate. When Mr. Mills springs the gate open, the five little pigs romp forward and -- around the track and then, snorting and jostling, dip their plug noses into a bowl of mash.

This rather outlandish exercise is being repeated this week in Mr. Mills' backyard in this Montgomery County crossroads near the Virginia line. Mr. Mills is preparing his pigs for the upcoming season -- the pig-racing season.

You didn't know pigs raced? It was news to Mr. Mills when the secretary of the Montgomery County Fair asked him to train pigs for racing at the 1984 fair.

"I thought she was crazy," he says of the secretary, Hazel Staley, who had just returned from a trip to the Midwest wild with enthusiasm over seeing what was then the only troupe of racing pigs in the country.

"I'd never tried to get a pig to do anything other than eat," Mr. Mills says. "As for getting a pig to run around a track, I thought that was crazy as hell -- and so did a lot of other people."

Mr. Mills approached this warily. He was not a frivolous man, having learned early the virtues of hard, honest work. He grew up with 11 brothers and sisters on a farm in Quince Orchard. That's two miles down the road from Darnestown.

He became a successful plumber and part-time farmer, raising TTC beef cattle and feeder pigs. He showed hogs at the county fair and served on its board of directors.

But he did sort of look like what you might expect a trainer of racing pigs to look like. He was, and still is, perfectly bald. The deep lines across his forehead are like the rivers on a map. His splendidly blue eyes are like the oceans.

And his appealing, slightly mischievous grin seems to whisper: "I'll try anything once."

So he perused the book Ms. Staley brought back from the Midwest, "From A Sow's Ear." It's a guide to pig racing written by Roy Holding, who created the spectacle as an advertising gimmick for a pork-packing plant.

Mr. Mills built a starting gate and track out of "just junk," he says -- plumbing supplies, refrigerator shelves, a door closer and an old gate from a horse barn. Then he commenced transforming ordinary feeder pigs into racing stars.

What he discovered was that a pig will do what it wants to do, no matter what you try to get it to do. But he also discovered that a pig will, if you make it convenient and worthwhile, run around a track in front of screaming people.

That first year, 1984, Mr. Mills trained pigs to race at the fair in about six weeks. His pigs were such a hit that national newspapers and TV shows reported on "The Dash for Mash," as he dubbed his show. Even the International Herald Tribune ran a photograph of the pigs.

He was besieged with offers from fairs and festivals up and down the East Coast. The second year, and every year since, he and his pigs have been booked from New York to Florida, from late June or early July to early November.

He quit the plumbing business because, he says, he makes more money in four months racing pigs -- he won't say exactly how much -- than he made all year as a plumber.

So now, at 60, Mr. Mills doesn't mind calling himself a pig racer, even though eight years ago, he recalls, "People thought I'd lost it all. They knew I didn't have much to start with. But they thought I'd lost it all when they heard I was going to race pigs."

It took him three years to get everything right, he says. Now he follows the same routine every year.

He buys 15 young pigs from local farmers in June. Each pig weighs 12 to 18 pounds. It is a month old.

"You want to get that joker when he's about 4 weeks old," Mr. Mills says. "And in three days he'll be racing in front of people."

He places the pigs in pens, five to a pen, in the 42-foot trailer in his backyard. When he opens a pen the pigs can go only one way: Out the trailer, down a ramp and into a small space behind the starting gate.

When he opens the back of the gate, the pigs scoot in. When he springs open the front gate, they pop out. After he claps his hands and gently chases them around the track a few times, they learn to run to the end, where a bowl of mash awaits them.

By fair time they'll run the 150-foot oval track in about six seconds.

They'll wear little saddles, each a different color and bearing a different number, 1 through 5. This is all for fun, but Mr. Mills says people in the crowd sometimes bet among themselves. He's even seen $100 bills change hands, he says.

After a month or so, Mr. Mills will get 15 new pigs. Of the eight pig racers on the circuit now, he says, he's the only one who keeps young pigs in the act. They're cuter, he says, and the audience likes them better.

The audience also likes his ducks, but not so much his goats. You didn't know ducks and goats raced? Mr. Mills trained them after his rousing success with pigs.

Every 90 minutes or so he plays his recorded bugle call, and people flock to the pig track. The show, which includes three pig races, one duck race and one goat race, takes place five to seven times a day.

This road show, the 1992 version, departs Tuesday for the Monmouth County Fair in New Jersey -- with stops later in Maryland at fairs in Harford, Montgomery and St. Mary's counties, and a community festival in Thurmont.

He'll keep the ducks and goats all season, but he'll sell the old pigs back to a farmer. After a month they've grown to 60 to 80 pounds.

For a pig, Mr. Merle's traveling show is a brief stopover on the road to becoming a pork chop.

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