Million Dollar Pigeons
(Ireland, 98 min.)
Dir. Gavin Fitzgerald
Program: Special Presentations (World Premiere)
Chances are good that when most people encounter a pigeon on the street or at the park they do not think of its athletic ability. However, there are many around the globe who take great interest in the winged creatures’ potential and will pay top dollar for it as one witnesses in Gavin Fitzgerald’s charming crowd-pleaser Million Dollar Pigeons. Once heralded as a “classless sport” that everyone from kings and queens to peasants could play, pigeon racing has evolved into a high stakes international event filled with its own brand of feathered superstars.
Fitzgerald’s guide into this competitive racing world is Ireland based pigeon fancier John O’Brien. A father of two, he has 60 pigeons, including race winner “Big Balls,” that he routinely trains. Citing a vision of Leonardo da Vinci that appeared to him while high on magic mushrooms as confirmation that he was meant to be in the sport, O’Brien has a big dream he wants to achieve. One of them is winning the South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race, a “one loft” event that is consider the Olympics of the pigeon racing world. However, he will need to convince quite a few members of his local club to buy into his vision due to the high entry fee for the race.
At a cost of a $1,000 per pigeon, the famed South African race has attracted the cream of the crop in the world of pigeon racing. Due to the steep level of competition, one cannot simply enter one pigeon and hope to walk away with the $1.5 million dollar prize. To stand a decent chance, you must go in with a min- army ready for war. Competitors like American fancier Mike Ganus, who has multiple titles to his name and is also a successful pigeon breeder, enters 50-100 pigeons in the Million Dollar Pigeon Race. Of course, the appeal of the South African race goes far beyond its massive payout. For many the one loft format has become the oxygen valve that keeps the heart of the sport pumping.
Pigeon racing clubs all over the world have seen a swift decline in membership due to advancements in technology. With young people glued to their phones and gaming devices, the minimum age of most pigeon fanciers is between 40 to 50 years-old. As one participant notes in the film, “if you got no youth, you got no future.” Furthermore, there has always been a logistical nightmare that comes with preparing pigeons to race at distances, which often differ club to club. One loft racing addresses all these issues as the pool of competitors is large and everything occurs at one centralized place. Fanciers send their pigeons to be trained like athletes by the same staff and are fed the same foods.
While the one loft format helps to even the playing field during the race, it also has played a role in the growing financial imbalance regarding the birds themselves. With top tier pigeons being sold for up to $400,000 at auction, and the rare “Lionel Messi of pigeons” going for over a million, the sport has become a playground for the elite. Many fanciers are finding themselves priced out of the acquisition market due to the seemingly endless stream of money flowing in from the fanciers in Asia. The increase in money flooding the sport has also led to concerns about the integrity of the races themselves.
As one observes in Fitzgerald’s film, even the prestigious South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race is not above controversy. When scandal erupts just as Covid-19 pandemic hits, questions begin to arise about both the conditions of the pigeons and what CEO Sara Blackshaw has done with the prize money. The shady practices leave individuals like O’Brien no choice but to seek out other one loft races such as an emerging race in Thailand, which features an all-female pigeon training crew and prides itself on transparency. It is when documenting the unfolding claims of corruption in the racing scene that Million Dollar Pigeon reminds viewers that there is a human cost to all of this.
For all the wealth intertwined in the sport, very little of it trickles down to trainers and staff who keep the races running. The scandal at the South African event has a direct impact on their wallets and livelihood. Fitzgerald manages to make one even feel for the fanciers, who have invested a lot of money into the event, as they are left financially stonewalled by Blackshaw’s organization without any concrete answers. Part of what makes Million Dollar Pigeon such a delight is that Fitzgerald never pokes fun at the colourful individuals he interviews, but rather ensures that their humanity shines through even when their egos threaten to overshadow them.
Filled with eccentric characters and plenty of humour and heart, it is hard not to get pulled into this David versus Goliath tale. Million Dollar Pigeons is one of the most engaging and unconventional sports films you will see this year.
Million Dollar Pigeons premiered at Hot Docs on April 29.