Hay, Oats and Water July 2

By Sheila Williams

Of Mice (or Pigeons) and Men

And now to my confession…

As all backside workers know, there are many more creatures at Canterbury Park than Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses.

My first trainer, Peter David Knoll, had an iguana that he wore around his neck like a feather boa. I would walk among his Rhode Island Reds in his shed row as they picked at bugs, and for awhile he kept a mini-horse in one of the stalls. We would tell newcomers that he was the multiple stakes winning Princess Elaine–the highest earning Minnesota-bred mare of that decade.

Part of the backside’s charm is the one-eyed cats, potbellied pigs, and the goats that butt visiting owners with their horny heads. These creatures act as friend and therapist to the Thoroughbred racehorse. To outlaw friends on the backside would be a travesty to the sport.

Now there is one creature that the facilities staff at Canterbury Park has tried to eradicate for years. Pigeons. I am speaking of the nuisance that does nothing but harbor trouble. Like the Taliban, they are impossible to be rid of.

These round-eyed beady birds have pooped on the heads, the racing forms and the benches of every good customer since the facility opened in 1985. Few customers know the extent of work done by Canterbury Facility Director Mark Erickson and his staff to eradicate this problem.

Erickson experimented with Perigan Falcons. The grandstand was not tall enough for these falcons to nest and dine on the plump pigeon.

They tried phony owls. The pigeons pooped on them.

They tried shooting them with bb guns. They are facility men, not sharpshooters, and we are lucky no one lost an eye.

During the seven years I ran the press box, they decided poison was the answer.

We have a catwalk outside the press box. If you look up during the racing day, you will occasionally see that lunatic Paul Allen–our track announcer–dancing on it like Nero while throwing free admission tickets or tee shirts down to the crowd.

Once a week, Erickson and his crew would solemnly walk into the press box with a small pan of arsenic. It wasn’t a happy job, but they were assigned to do it. One young facility staffer would climb out the window onto the catwalk and place the poison pan beneath the Daily Racing Form office window. The pigeons were to eat the poisoned food, fly away and die.

Back to my confession. Forgive me Randy for I have sinned.

The poison never worked because once your man set the poison pan on the catwalk and left the press box, I assigned my summer intern to climb through the window, scale the catwalk, remove the pan and throw it in the trash. The intern then had to return to the catwalk and place the empty tray back in position. There would be no murder on my watch.

One summer intern initially refused to go. I told him it was him or the pigeon pan.

I have always felt guilty about this act. I remember when there was a swallow stuck between the sheet rocked walls which separated the press box and the announcer’s booth. Erickson and his carpenter patiently took a saws-all and removed a square big enough to save the swallow. He flew right out the window, a free man. Then the men patiently patched the hole and repainted the wall.

Another time, the facility crew was to remove a mountain of straw and horse manure from an area about 250 feet from the track kitchen. A mother mallard decided the manure mountain was the perfect spot to hatch her brood. Erickson let that manure mountain remain until the day mama mallard led her ducklings single file down to shallows of the pond.

Mark Erickson, you didn’t fail. The pigeons remain because of me.

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