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Ostrich Racing at Chandler Arizona's Annual Ostrich Festival

Ostrich racing is not a common sport. However, Ostrich racing is not unusual either as, according to WikiPedia, it is a part of the culture of South Africa as well as being popular in other parts of Africa.

The arid land that makes up the Republic of South Africa and its neighboring states is the natural habitat of ostriches. This is the area where today’s ostriches originated and where all of the ostriches found in other parts of the world today were originally shipped from.

Ostrich racing is also not entirely uncommon in the United States as it is often found at carnivals and in some animal attraction sites around the nation. Chandler Arizona’s annual Ostrich Festival features ostrich racing as one of its main attractions.

Ostriches in the Ancient World

It is not just in modern times that people have used ostriches for riding and racing. Ostriches were also popular in the ancient world.

While today’s ostriches originated in South Africa and adjoining desert areas, there was a subspecies whose habitat was North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

Known as the Arabian Ostrich (Struthio camelus syriacus), this cousin of the ostrich species we know today was popular with the people of the ancient states around the Mediterranean Sea and survived in Arabia and surrounding areas until its dwindling herds died out and it became extinct in the mid 20th Century.

Archeologists have found pictures depicting ancient Egyptians, Romans, Mesopotamians and other peoples riding ostriches and being pulled in carts or chariots by ostriches. It is quite possible that some of these people used ostriches for racing especially chariot racing.

Ostrich Chariot Racing

Ostrich pulled chariot racing toward finish line

Ostrich pulled chariot racing toward finish line

Ostriches Are Designed for Running Rather than Flying

Using new DNA evidence, scientists now theorize that ostriches and other flightless birds found in the Southern Hemisphere actually evolved from small birds that once flew. These prehistoric flying birds have DNA that matches that of ostriches, emus and other flightless birds native to the Southern Hemisphere today.

Scientists now theorize that, following the extinction of the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago, these small flying birds began to evolve into the larger flightless birds from which today’s ostriches, emus, kiwis and other species we know today. With the dinosaurs gone these birds could survive by their speed and did not need to fly for survival. Thus, while they retained their wings and feathers like other birds, their new larger bodies made them no longer capable of flying.

Despite Being Unable to Fly, Ostriches and Jockies Still Find Uses for their Wings

Ostriches are large birds. They have wings but, given the size of their bodies the wings are relatively small. This plus the fact that the design of their bodies is not very aerodynamic, renders them among the few birds that cannot fly. However, the wings do come in handy.

For the ostrich the wings are useful for shading their young in the nest, for covering the upper, naked, portion of their legs, against loss of body heat, as a display for mating rituals and for functioning like a rudder and helping them to turn while running fast.

For jockeys the wings provide something to grab onto while bouncing around on the spherical back.

Ostriches make up for their lack of flying ability by being able to run very fast. They can run at speeds of over 40 miles per hour and, with their long legs a single step can be as long as 16 feet. This, plus their large size, has led people from ancient times to the present to use them to race and pull wagons. Of course the unpredictability of the ostriches’ movements and its dislike of being used as a beast of burden has forced humans to rely on other animals such as horses, oxen, camels, etc.

Jockey Hanging on to Ostrich's Wings

Jockey Holding On To Ostrich Wings as She races Bare Back

Jockey Holding On To Ostrich Wings as She races Bare Back

Ostrich Racing’s Popularity Declined Following World War I

In the Unite States ostrich racing drew spectators and fans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A popular tourist attraction that opened in 1892 in Jacksonville, Florida, featured ostriches and ostrich racing which caused the attraction to become popular and draw crowds to ostrich racing events in other parts of the nation in the decades prior to World War I.

Despite its popularity in the early 20th Century, ostrich racing in the United States has never been a popular sport, probably because ostriches, despite their size and speed, are very difficult to manage as well as difficult for a jockey to stay on during a race. As a result, ostrich racing in the U.S. today is mainly a carnival attraction rather than a competitive sport.

As an attraction, ostrich racing is a combination of traditional racing and rodeo bronco or bull riding. While the ostrich is doing its best to get rid of the jockey, the jockey not only has to try to stay on the ostrich but also has keep working to get the stubborn bird to race toward the finish line rather than running off in another direction.

Price List for Ostrich Meats

Ostrich Meat Menu

Ostrich Meat Menu

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Why an Ostrich Festival in Chandler Arizona?

In the video above the ostrich races took place at the Chandler, Arizona Chamber of Commerce’s annual Ostrich Festival. This festival, which has been held every spring since 1989, attracts huge crowds from the surrounding area. A sizable portion of these crowds are visitors from all over the U.S. and Canada who are spending the winter months in Arizona.

Located adjacent to the southeastern edge of Phoenix, Arizona and known today for its high tech economy, the city of Chandler, which is located on the southeastern edge of Phoenix, was once home to the third largest ostrich ranch in the Phoenix area.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s ostrich farming was a big industry in the United States with most of it located in Southern California and Arizona. By 1914 there were some 6,000 ostriches being raised on ostrich ranches in the Phoenix area. These 6,000 represented close to 80% of the ostriches in the U.S. and 550 of these 6,000 were on a single ranch located in what is now Chandler, Arizona.

Looking for a fundraising event that would be unique to Chandler, the Chamber of Commerce came up with the idea of an Ostrich Festival. The first Ostrich Festival was held in 1989 and has been repeated and grown every year since.

Now a week long festival each spring that culminates in a three day (Friday, Saturday and Sunday) carnival, the festival attracts thousands of visitors from all over the world and generally nets about $100,000 for the Chamber of Commerce for its projects each year.

An Ostrich Burger

Ostrich burger on a bun

Ostrich burger on a bun

Chandler’s Week Long Ostrich Festival Culminates with a 3 Day Carnival

The Ostrich Festival is a fundraising event and the weekend carnival plays a big role in the fundraising.

While the carnival itself is much like fairs and carnivals held throughout the United States each year, there are some unique aspects.

First of all, this is an Ostrich Festival so there are ostrich races as well as food vendors selling ostrich burgers made from ostrich meat and other vendors selling leather goods made from the leathery skin of the ostrich, ostrich feathers and things made from ostrich feathers as well as other ostrich related products.

Secondly, the objective of the Chandler Chamber of Commerce in starting this event was to both raise money for its own activities as well as to support its objective which is to promote and help to grow local businesses and the local economy. The Ostrich Festival and ostrich races are unique and attract visitors from all over the world which certainly helps to boost local businesses and the economy.

Finally, the festival highlights the role played by the ostrich industry in its early history and founding.

Me With Ostrich Burger at Ostrich Burger Booth

Heading out to eat my ostrich burger lunch

Heading out to eat my ostrich burger lunch

Dining on an Ostrich Burger

Despite the fact that ostriches are birds, their meat is red and tastes like beef. Ostrich meat is considered by many to be a healthier alternative to other types of meat because it is significantly lower in fat, calories and cholesterol than beef. It is also somewhat lower in fat, calories and cholesterol than chicken or turkey.

Ostrich meat is common in South Africa and many parts of Europe but is considered by Americans to be an exotic meat and thus not well known. It can, however, be found in specialty meat markets and on the Internet. Because the market for ostrich meat is a small and specialty one, the number of farms supplying ostrich meat is also small and these two factors combine to result in high prices for ostrich meat. The current prices tend to range from eight to twenty dollars per pound.

Ostrich burgers are expensive but, since we were here, I decided to try an ostrich burger for lunch. While it tasted very good, it wasn’t any different than a regular beef hamburger. In fact, if I had my wife blindfold me and then go an buy both an ostrich burger and a regular hamburger and then have me try each and tell her which was which I would have had to guess. Like ostrich eggs, which my gastronomic experience with was the topic of a previous Hub, I couldn’t tell the difference between the two.

Ostrich Chariot Racers At the Start Line

Ostrich Racing Chariot and Rider

Ostrich Racing Chariot and Rider

Ostrich Ranching is Undergoing a Slow Revival in Arizona

Ostrich ranching no longer plays a role in the economies of Chandler or the Greater Phoenix Metro Area. However, one ostrich ranch has come into being in Arizona in recent decades and that is the Rooster Cogburn ranch located between Phoenix and Tucson along Interstate 10 in Picacho.

D.C. “Rooster” Cogburn got the ranch off to a good start a number of years ago and had big plans to once again build a thriving ostrich raising business in the United States. However, a freak accident a few years ago resulted in the herd stampeding into the fences which resulted in the death of four ostriches and a large number having to be slaughtered due to their injuries.

Rooster Cogburn gave up on trying to build a profitable ostrich ranching business. However, his daughter would still like to revive her father’s business dream.

In the meantime the ranch remains in operation with a herd of about 400 ostriches plus a number of live animal exhibits. While it generates some revenue from the sale of ostrich products, at the moment it operates and generates income as a tourist attraction with ostrich ranching as a sideline.

Ostriches and ranch hands from the Rooster Cogburn ranch were among those participating in the ostrich races in Chandler.

Ostriches Bite

Ostriches Bite

© 2015 Chuck Nugent

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