Champion avoids big flap over historic win

Flight to glory: British bird first home in pigeon racing's new international competition
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The Independent Online

Perhaps she was drained after yesterday's 160-mile dash, completed at an average speed of nearly 20 mph, but all the new world champion and winner of pounds 10,000 could manage was an exhausted "Coo".

However, it was a suitable climax to one of the most important events in pigeon racing history. It has taken nearly 200 years to organise a truly international race, but the logistics have been daunting: only birds just old enough to leave their parents - about 35 days - were eligible for this race. "It takes a lot of skill when the bird is just a mass of feathers in your hand," Rick Osman, editor of Racing Pigeon Weekly, said.

It was not just the glory that persuaded 400 owners from 14 countries, including Australia, Japan, Thailand and Saudi Arabia, to pay pounds 100 and give up their most promising youngster. Big money is now involved in the sport. A Japanese pigeon sold for pounds 120,000 recently, so a world champion should be worth a lot more than the pounds 10,000 and couple of air tickets from British Airways, the event's sponsor.

It was back in March that wooden panels were winched up the 20 stories of London's Royal Lancaster Hotel, overlooking Hyde Park - the hotel is owned by the World Pigeon Convention's president - and assembled on the roof into a pounds 25,000 pigeon hotel. Terry Peart, partner in a Surrey sandwich bar, was selected as loft manager.

For the past six months, Mr Peart has risen every day at 4am and travelled to London. He has fed and watered the birds, tended them on their first nervous flights, treated their injuries and trained them to build up muscle for the big race. "I'm happy with my own company and the birds," he said.

As the big day edged nearer, he carried the birds down in the service lifts and took them farther and farther from home: Littlehampton, Worthing, Hastings and other south coast towns. The original squad of 400 was reduced to 180 by illness and injuries. A bird from the Queen's loft was one on the sick list.

On Wednesday, the birds were taken to Canterbury where they were ringed, then transported on Thursday to just outside Paris. The race did not go to plan. Scheduled for Friday, fierce winds meant a postponement to Saturday and the birds were moved to Rouen, cutting 60 miles off the race. Then at 8am on Saturday they flapped into the French skies and headed back for England.

Mr Peart admitted he had been on edge. But all was well: the first pigeon, a British bird, arrived at 3.15pm Saturday to applause from an international audience. Even so, Mr Peart was up at dawn again yesterday and today greeting the stragglers and will do so all week.