At Md. State Fair, Pigs Are Off And Running

Winners Include Sarah Jessica Porker, Kevin Bacon, Arnold Schwarzenhogger

August 30, 2009|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,scott.calvert@baltsun.com

Zach Johnson has spent the past 12 years racing pigs at fairs nationwide, and this weekend marked his sixth return to the Maryland State Fair in Timonium.

But the goateed Kansas City resident still seems to enjoy watching the creatures waddle-trot around the tiny track. Or as he'd undoubtedly put it, the job isn't boaring.

The man is a pig pun machine, cranking them out like a sausage factory, especially when it comes to the names. Consider the lineup for the first of three races Saturday afternoon: Kevin Bacon, David Hasselhog, Brad Pig and Simon Sowell.

Not only is Johnson, 38, the owner of Swifty Swine Productions and its "swine master," but he emcees races. And at the 2:30 p.m. heat, well over a hundred cheering spectators saw what a ham he can be. Before the pigs left the starting crate, he told the crowd that they're different from most athletes. Cold cash doesn't drive them. "They cruise this track at blazing speed for an Oreo cookie."

Blazing, of course, is a relative concept. But the pigs did move at a decent clip. For pigs. Kevin Bacon got out to a quick lead, trailed by David Hasselhog. Simon Sowell made a late charge, but in the end Bacon smoked them all. The race took seconds.

The small track, dubbed Pork Chop Downs, sits between the Timonium horse track and the fair's midway, with its bounty of carnival rides and food stands.

It's the kind of setting Johnson knows well. For nine months of the year, he hits the road. This season began in February with the San Antonio Livestock Show and Rodeo and is set to run at least through October with the South Carolina State Fair.

Johnson says half-jokingly that he got into pig racing because he couldn't afford his dream of driving on the NASCAR circuit and figured racing pigs was better than not racing. Besides, his parents are veteran petting zoo operators, so he knows animals.

It's a family venture. Johnson's wife, Shannon, home-schools their daughters, ages 7 and 8, and looks after their youngest, who's 2. The unusual lifestyle has perks. For nearly a month he worked a fair in San Diego, which gave the kids plenty of beach time. And rather than just reading about Washington and Niagara Falls, his children get to visit such places.

On Saturday, the girls did schoolwork in a trailer on the far side of the fairgrounds while their dad ran Pork Chop Downs. The pigs live in their own air-conditioned trailer. In all, Johnson travels with 18 to 22 pigs, which means lots of regular cleaning and monthly vet checkups.

He fields several kinds of pigs. The first race featured white Hampshire-Yorkshire mixes. Next came brown-spotted Durocs, all around 7 weeks old. Sarah Jessica Porker led from start to finish, followed by Hammah Montana and Lindsay Loham. Britney Spare Ribs never had a shot.

Many in the audience were new to pig racing, including Rudy Tyrell and son Dominic, 5. Both enjoyed the spectacle. As Dominic said with wide eyes, "I never knew they'd run that fast."

At halftime Swifty the pot-bellied pig entertained the crowd by belly-flopping into a tank. When his assistant wrapped the pig in a red towel, Johnson naturally said, "How's that for a pig in a blanket?"

And then in the final race he fielded his "heavyweight division" of four pot-bellied pigs. Arnold Schwarzenhogger won handily. Two - Barack O'Ribs Obama and Hillary Rod-ham Clinton - simply stopped midway, called by nature to higher priorities.

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