Swifty Swine Productions Goes for the Gold

A pig race. Credit: Scott Horsley, NPR. i i

"Shaquille O'Squeal" (wearing No. 3) breaks out to an early lead in a 150-foot race, sponsored by Swifty Swine Productions. The winning pig gets an Oreo cookie. Scott Horsley, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Scott Horsley, NPR
A pig race. Credit: Scott Horsley, NPR.

"Shaquille O'Squeal" (wearing No. 3) breaks out to an early lead in a 150-foot race, sponsored by Swifty Swine Productions. The winning pig gets an Oreo cookie.

Scott Horsley, NPR

Zach Johnson is in the racing business. But he doesn't race horses, dogs, cars or bikes. He races pigs. He takes his pig team and sets up Porkchop Downs on the county fair and carnival circuit, eight months of the year. His company, Swifty Swine Productions, has plenty of competition in the pig racing field.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

If you can learn something for your job from the pit crew's at racetracks, imagine what you might learn at the place we're going next.

NPR's Scott Horsley visits a fair where pigs are off to the races - five times a day.

SCOTT HORSLEY reporting:

The San Diego County Fair wrapped up a three-week run yesterday. It's an early summer festival of funnel cakes, 4-H Exhibits, and a sky-high Ferris wheel.

Unidentified Man #1: Every time we play we give one of the big prizes…

(Soundbite of fairgrounds)

Unidentified Man #2: You can chop your chicken, your beef, pork chops or fajitas with that knife…

HORSLEY: For many visitors, the biggest draw is not the games of chance on the Midway, or the bargains in the commercial hall, but rather a miniature racetrack called Pork Chop Downs.

Unidentified Man #3: So, is everyone ready for some pig races?

(Soundbite of pig race)

HORSLEY: Four young pigs, in racing silks, dash around an oval track towards an Oreo cookie at the finish line. The racers are named after famous pigs, like Wilbur, from Charlotte's Web, or famous humans, like Mia Hamm or Kevin Bacon.

Zach Johnson acts as master of ceremonies and racetrack announcer. He calls himself the swine master.

Mr. ZACH JOHNSON (Pig Race Caller): It's been my lifelong dream to race pigs, so when my boat came I just said, let's go for it, you know? Bring the wife and the kids and let's go race some pigs nationwide. This is America, so sometimes you've just got to go do what's your dream.

HORSLEY: Johnson's been living his dream since he bought the pig racing business nine years ago. He and his wife, and two young daughters, live in one trailer - the pigs live in another.

Their life is a mix of animal husbandry and live theater. Six times a day, six days a week, eight months out of the year.

Mr. JOHNSON: It's worth it to be with my kids and my wife all the time. They're never that far away. And I see them all day long, so I wouldn't trade that for anything.

HORSLEY: Johnson has a degree in marketing and public relations. After each show, he sells T-shirts and plastic pig key chains. He also snaps Polaroid of race fans holding Swifty, one of the cutest pigs. The fair pays Johnson and his company just over $1,000 a day for the entertainment, and fans, like Nancy Martinosky(ph), come back year after year.

Ms. NANCY MARTINOSKY (Pig Racing Fan): We need Zach and his wife when they just got married. They're kind of like family.

HORSLEY: Johnson's company, Swifty Swine Productions, is one of several competing for the pig racing dollar. A few years ago, one of the rival outfits drew protest from animal rights activist in Massachusetts. The local authorities found no basis for the complaint, and the resulting publicity just made the race crowds even bigger.

Zach Johnson says there's no need to mistreat the pigs since they're smart and easy to train.

Mr. JOHNSON: What you're looking for is you're looking for a thoroughbred horse in a pig. So you want a good beefy rear end for explosion out of he gates, and a good slender front end for the, you know, coming on those corners. And once you find that and some Oreo cookies, you've got a good racing pig on your hands.

(Soundbite of pig race)

HORSLEY: Another race gets underway. Fans are divided into cheering sections, and those who back the winning pig are rewarded with a pound of bacon from a local supermarket.

When the last race is over and the last fans have gone home, Johnson and his family prepare to move on. The pigs are bedded down in their air-conditioned trailer, and another fair is waiting for its first race.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, San Diego.

Unidentified Man #4: (Unintelligible) three, but I think your pig might have pulled a hamstring. All right, give your cheerleaders one more big round of applause!

INSKEEP: This could only be MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LYNN NEARY, host:

And I'm Lynn Neary.

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