THEY call it the "Millionaires' Club": a shed at Castle Hill Showground, pigeon charts on the walls, nothing flash.

Inside are lawyers, developers, architects. All have channelled fortunes into pigeon racing, travelling overseas to chase bloodlines and building lofts to rival houses."It's like a poor man's racehorse," said Gary Young, a club member and owner of a building company. "But it's not all poor men any more." These are people once referred to as the Howard aspirationals, who have become the nouveau riche. They have taken a sport traditionally regarded as blue-collar and injected it with new-found wealth. They reflect the shifting economics of Australia, the idea anyone can succeed. In January, two club members and a friend went to Belgium to buy from a fancier whose pigeons were performing out of turn. Each spent about $20,000 on new stock, although single birds have been bought for more. "We bought from his best bird," said Vince Pedavoli, an architect. The idea was to bring pigeons back to Australia to improve the quality of their lofts. Later this month, Mr Pedavoli will send six birds to the Sun City Million Dollar in South Africa - one of the richest pigeon races in the world. About 250 Australian birds were entered last year, at a cost of about $1500 each. "There are two groups," said Jeff Howell, editor of the Australian Racing Pigeon Journal. "A lot of the guys who spend big money are younger people. It's like anything, there's always resistance to change." He said races such as the $100,000 Australian Pigeon Punt and the $30,000 Rooty Hill Green Ring had changed the way people approach the sport. Older racers, with 20 birds in a backyard shed, struggle to compete. John Hanson, a printer who sells pigeons, recently bought a pair from Belgium for $25,000. He has $100,000 worth of birds in quarantine, awaiting importation, and says he has spent about $500,000 on the sport in two decades. "Each year there seems to be more money around," he said. "These lofts, they've got everything that opens and shuts." Tony Sienkiewicz, who owns a bacon company, is building a loft worth $100,000 on a block at Kenthurst. He is one of the old pigeon racers, but part of the new money. On February 19, 1990, pigeon racing changed in Australia. The first shipment of birds arrived from Britain - 160 pigeons, selected for their bloodlines, to add to local stocks unchanged since World War II. A further 257 birds would arrive by the end of that year and the flow would continue until today. The Lu Bros Sale in 2003 was another shake-up. Believed to be the richest pigeon auction in Australia, its takings were estimated at $250,000. "That one sale basically lifted the profile and the whole bloodline in the country," Mr Pedavoli said. "Everyone got a hold of these latest, best birds from Europe." Some of these men own racehorses but say the satisfaction of pigeon racing is that victory is all their own - not shared with a trainer or jockey. Others, who have had pigeons all their lives, are embarrassed by the working-class tag and do not tell colleagues of their passion. For all the money, however, the sport is not controlled by wealth. Pat Arcella, a barrister and banana merchant, spent $150,000 on pigeons in the post-importation years but that has not made him unbeatable. "In pigeon racing, money won't guarantee success," he said. "You could get an 80-year-old chap who's a pensioner, who's got no money - he'll come and knock us off. Pigeon racing is how you communicate with your pigeons."

source: Erik Jensen,
April 21, 2008