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At the speed of duck

To talk to Robert Duck is to realize that the man is completely quacked.

How could be be anything but. Duck is a 12-time national duck racing champion and, yes, Duck really is his last name.

Duck is at the Island County Fair this week promoting duck racing, a sport few outside the state of New Mexico have ever heard of. Sure, he's been on Johnny Carson and Good Morning America and has appeared with his ducks in magazines and newspapers all over the country.

But for those who missed all that publicity, duck racing is something that probably would never come to mind as a pastime, let alone a sport.

Still, it's something Island County residents won't soon forget. Set up with a 16-foot-long, four-lane racing "pond" near the fair's Fiddle Faddle Farm this weekend, Duck and his troupe of two dozen racing mallards are teaching the locals everything they need to know about duck racing. Five times a day until the end of the fair, Duck is loaning out his ducks to anyone who thinks he or she can motivate a water foul to dash across water at high speed.

During Thursday's opening race, it was the kids who thought they had the best chance. Freeland grade schooler Danni Cobb, who has had almost no duck handling experience, made the grade and placed second in a preliminary race. Although her duck's performance -- spurred on by a good deal of cheering and splashing -- was not good enough to get Cobb into a championship race, the neophyte duck racer learned the most important lesson the sport teaches: Hang onto your duck.

"It was hard," she said of the squirming, flapping duck she was given for her race.

Though it is unlikely that duck racing will ever really catch on in this area of the country -- the sport's birthplace, Demming, N.M., has a near monopoly on duck competition -- Robert Duck said he still loves coming to the Northwest to show off his feathered friends' speed skills. Retired from duck racing competition after winning $50,000 in prize money in Demming over the years, Duck said he takes his ducks and their racing pond to county and state fairs around the nation to give other people a taste of the fun he used to have on the professional duck racing circuit.

Duck said duck racing got its start in Demming when a few people planned a duck racing event they thought would draw just a few dozen people. What started as a diversion in the desert town became a huge event when regional and national media started publicizing the races.

For accuracy, Duck notes that official duck races are held on grass, not water courses. But even out of the water, he said, the world's fastest ducks can move pretty quickly.

"The world record is .83 of a second," he said.

While at the fair, Duck is not charging a fee for the races. He is part of the paid entertainment hired by fair management. The races will go on through Sunday.

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