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November 22nd, 2011
Texas town in the running for turkey racing bragging rights

The Great Gobbler Gallop, a one-and-a-half-block race between turkeys Ruby Begonia and Paycheck, is a 39-year tradition of two towns' turkey celebrations. Ruby Begonia mingles with crowd-goers tucked tightly under Coach Greg Nemec's arm after the race at this year's Cuero Turkeyfest. PHOTO by ELENA WATTS

Reporting Texas

CUERO — Training turkeys can be highly stressful work.

On a recent Saturday morning, rival teams of adult turkey trainers from Cuero and Worthington, Minn., filed into a small café on Cuero’s historic Main Street to “juice up” before the big race. Nearby Miss Cuero and members of her court sat in front of a lively mural of lifelike gobblers, as they pushed and pulled poufs of white tulle to adjust their formal dresses. An armful of vodka bottles barreled its way through the door where orange juice awaited. Coffee dripped. Breakfast trays were filled and refilled. Tired eyes, gravelly voices and whiffs of stale alcohol betrayed good times already had. It’s the hair of the dog for the eight trainers who had spent the previous night kicking up their boots to the guitar strumming of Pat Green at the 39th Annual Cuero Turkeyfest.

“I’m still drunk,” Jesse Teernik, a Worthington turkey handler, said at breakfast. “If we lose this race, I’ll have to buy a house and live here. I can’t go home.”

For nearly four decades, teams of four from the two towns have trained turkeys for the one-and-a-half-block Great Gobbler Gallop, an annual feature of both towns’ turkey celebrations. In 1972, the two burgs, each one proclaiming itself “Turkey Capital of the World”, collided when the editor of Worthington’s local newspaper passed through Cuero during its Turkey Trot. After discussions with the editor of Cuero’s local paper, the friendly gallop began in 1973 to determine which town owned the title.

Each team consists of a captain, a coach and two handlers identified by their orange or red long-sleeved, button-down canvas shirts. They are in charge of Worthington’s turkey, Paycheck (who goes fast), and Cuero’s Ruby Begonia (who knows how to spend a paycheck). In September, the birds raced the clock at King Turkey Day in Worthington (population 10,000), then at Turkeyfest here in Cuero (population 7,000) a month later. Each turkey’s times are combined to determine which town lays claim to “Turkey Capital of the World.”

“Our training is a secret,” Teernik said. “Come to Minnesota, and we’ll show you.”

A giant, blow-up turkey keeps an eye on Cuero's Turkeyfest this October. The weekend includes a turkey race, 5K Turkey Trot, river race, parade, festival and musical performances. PHOTO by ELENA WATTS

In Cuero, located between San Antonio and the Texas coast, Turkeyfest season begins each spring with a barbecue cook-off, followed by Ruby Selection Day in July. Trainers look for long legs when choosing their turkey, said Cory Thamm, past festival president and longtime festival board member. Ruby is always a native Rio Grande variety from a farm in DeWitt County. Paycheck is caught in the Minnesota wild a week or two before the race.

In the early 1900s, Cuero had some of the largest turkey-raising plants in the country, Thamm said. Just before Thanksgiving, 50,000 turkeys were herded downtown in a cloud of road dirt to be shipped all over the country. In 1912, local business owners hosted the first Turkey Trot, which continued sporadically until 1972. The trot became an annual festival in 1973, also the gallop’s inaugural year. Turkeys, now heavy, barn-raised and sometimes featherless, are bred for modern markets and no longer account for much of Cuero’s economy.

Last month, Paycheck set the record in the Worthington leg of the gallop. He crossed the finish line in 27.7 seconds, leaving Ruby four minutes behind heading into the Cuero leg.

Texas handlers were hoping for the home-trot advantage. “We hope Paycheck goes crazy like Ruby did in Minnesota,” Cuero turkey handler Linda Nemec said before the race. “She turned right into the crowd, and we had to pull her out of a barbershop.”

In fact, both turkeys quickly escaped South Esplanade Street’s wide-open racecourse this year. They darted opposite directions, seeking refuge in the crowd lining the street. Handlers in uniforms way too warm for Texas sprinted after their beloved birds. Cuero’s strategy was to throw Ruby and “run like heck,” said another of her handlers, Amy Crain.

Worthington captain Diane Schettler plucked Paycheck from the masses first. With the turkey tucked under her arm, she dashed to the finish line. Her team’s victorious combined time was a bit over four minutes. Ruby crossed the line in coach Greg Nemec’s one-armed body-lock four minutes after her archrival for a combined time of about eight minutes. Both teams were penalized 30 seconds when their turkeys left the racecourse and two minutes for picking up their birds and running. To avoid penalties, the handlers try to guide their turkeys with body gestures and shouts. They are docked five seconds every time they touch them.

The 3-foot tall walnut and gold “Traveling Turkey Trophy of Tumultuous Triumph” returned north to southwestern Minnesota for another year. Cuero’s “Circulating Consolation Cup of Consummate Commiseration” remained south. The town newspapers have replaced the trophies once in the competition’s long history because of wear and tear.

“The towns are similar and different,” said Joni Harms, editor of Worthington’s Daily Globe, “but one common factor is that everyone is friendly, a tribute to both communities.”

“It’s more than a race, it’s about the friendships,” Cuero captain Bobby Phillips said. “It’s like a family reunion.”

When a Cuero resident died of a heart attack, friends from Worthington came right away to help out, said Annette Rath, past festival president and board member.

“It’s like your sisters and brothers or part of your family. They become part of our lives, and we become part of their lives,” Rath said. “So when things happen they are celebrated, or they are mourned in both places.”

This year about 20,000 people came to Cuero for the city’s largest annual event, which includes a carnival, a six-mile Turkey Trot (for humans), a parade, a river race, a festival and musical performances. Next year marks 100 years since Cuero hosted its first turkey trot, and 40 years of Turkeyfest.

“We’re looking to make it our greatest year yet,” Thamm said of 2012. “We have big plans in the entertainment department, 500 to 1,000 turkeys in the parade and a grand ball.”

Most of the estimated $25,000 generated annually by Turkeyfest is donated back to the community, and local nonprofit groups use the event to raise money, mainly with food booths.

Charity has played a role in the turkey rivalry. Just after the 1998 Turkeyfest, Cuero was devastated by flash flooding. Paycheck had been left behind temporarily, but was the only turkey to survive the flood, Rath said.

Worthington raised $10,000 for Cuero, and city officials used the money to purchase a rescue boat. They named it Paycheck.

ELENA WATTS reports for Reporting Texas, a program of the University of Texas’ School of Journalism, where this story was originally published. It is reprinted here through a news partnership between Reporting Texas and the San Marcos Mercury.

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