On your marks, get set ... sloooow

Turtles: At the annual derby, neck-and-neck competition means only that racers have poked their heads out of their shells.

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News From Around The Baltimore Region

July 10, 2005|By Tyrone Richardson | Tyrone Richardson,SUN STAFF

Names like Swift, Roadrunner and Lightning usually belong to race contestants demonstrating high speed.

But not yesterday at Patterson Park.

Such speed-inspired names were given to many of the turtles competing in the 64th annual Chesapeake Turtle Derby, held at the Pulaski Monument yesterday.

About 80 turtles were tested on their crawl speed in the circular concrete area in front of the statue of the Revolutionary War hero Gen. Casimir Pulaski.

The turtles were separated into three categories: box turtles, tortoises and all other types - except snapping turtles, which tend to bite.

Each heat began with about six or eight turtles being placed into a yellow cylinder by their owners. A few determined owners paused briefly to whisper a bit of last-minute advice to their turtles.

Once the turtles were set, the cylinder was removed and the turtles began to crawl toward the circular chalk finish line 10 feet from the start.

Spectators rose from their chairs, snapping pictures, while children clapped and shouted the names of their favorites.

"C'mon, Speedy!" one boy encouraged. "You can do it!"

Off to a slow start

Some of the races were faster than others. During one heat, no turtle moved for a few seconds and created a moment of confusion among the spectators. "These are the photogenic ones," said Bob Wall, the announcer and organizer for the event. "They're posing for the pictures."

Moments later, the turtles began to crawl.

An episode of motionless turtles is nothing unusual for Wall. "This is the slowest race in town," Wall said into the microphone during another race.

Throughout the years of the event, he said, "Speedy" has been the name of choice for many competitors.

For some spectators, the turtle derby has become part of summertime in Baltimore.

Joe Snair, 69, of Nottingham said he has been attending the races for decades and is passing on the tradition.

"I started coming here with my children. Now I'm coming here with my grandchildren," he said.

His daughter Patti Koski, 39, said she used to race turtles. Now her 9-year-old son Noah is in charge of a box turtle named Chester.

"You really can't train a turtle," she said. "We put him in a circle at home and they practice."

Koski said that each year after the race, her family sends Chester back into the wild and, surprisingly, he returns to their home in Perry Hall.

"We let him go each year and he returns each year," she said. "We can tell it's him because we took a picture of his shell."

Yesterday's event was Chester's fourth year trying to win a trophy, but he came up short.

The winner for the tortoise competition stole the show yesterday. Darwin, an 8-year- old, 50-pound African spur thigh tortoise, quickly walked only a few paces and won.

His owner, Karen Harris, said he's a strong and fast turtle and typically keeps himself in shape by pushing chairs, pacing around the front yard and climbing logs.

Back into retirement

The Koski family returned to their home in Perry Hall after the race. Moments later, they sang "He's a jolly good turtle" for Chester, lit a few candles and released him back into the wild.

Confident that Chester will return, Koski said, "We'll try again next year."

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