After a reluctant start, Ruby Begonia scampers down the street in Worthington, Minn. (pop. 12,764), in pursuit of her feathered competitor, Paycheck, during the Great Gobbler Gallop.
Guided by a four-person team from Cuero, Texas, the trotting turkey struts along the curb while Paycheck—Worthington’s favorite fowl—takes a flying foray into the cheering crowd, requiring her frustrated teammates to grab the sidetracked bird and return her to the pavement in violation of race rules.
“She’s a very social bird,” says Paycheck’s team captain Pete Suby, 53, waving a plastic paddle to coax the bird along the 150-yard dash.
Although Paycheck crossed the finish line first in the 40th annual race last September, Ruby Begonia was declared the winner because of penalties assessed against the Worthington team.
Four weeks later in Cuero (pop. 6,481), Ruby Begonia won again in the race’s second heat. With the victory, the Texas town reclaimed the Turkey Capital of the World title and regained the Traveling Turkey Trophy of Tumultuous Triumph after a two-year absence.
Ruby Begonia’s team captain Linda Nemec, 38, attributes the Texas turkey’s motivation to boisterous urgings. “We make as much noise as we can, and yell ‘Go Ruby, go!’” she says. “Ruby eventually gets the message.”
Turkey racing—and raising—are longtime traditions in Cuero and Worthington. Farmers in both communities historically raised large flocks, which were paraded through the streets during Cuero’s Turkey Trot festivities beginning in 1912, and celebrated during Worthington’s King Turkey Day since 1939.
In 1972, Worthington “Daily Globe” editor Lew Hudson, 84, discovered that Cuero also claimed to be Turkey Capital of the World and staged a turkey race as part of its Turkey Trot celebration. “I couldn’t believe there was another crazy town doing that,” he says.
Hudson and then-“Curero Record” editor Ken Long decided to settle the issue with a race. The winner of an annual two-heat Great Gobbler Gallop would earn the world title, a big trophy and bragging rights.
The following year, Cuero sent a turkey named Ruby Begonia to Worthington for the first of two heats. Accompanied by three human handlers, Ruby was an easy winner over Worthington’s bird, and later displayed her prowess in Cuero. But Worthington’s Paycheck, named because nothing goes faster, holds a 22-to-18 lead in the friendly rivalry.
Through the years, the annual race has produced some memorable mischief and feats.
Cuero fans once kidnapped Paycheck. When the turkey’s covered cage was unveiled at race time, it contained a fluttering sparrow. On another midnight mission, Texans painted Paycheck’s toenails pink.
In 1981, Paycheck took flight during the race and landed on the Nobles County Courthouse in Worthington. In 2007, Ruby Begonia flapped off the racetrack and onto the rooftop of the La Femme Boutique clothing store in Cuero. The bird jumped from roof to roof until a helicopter was used to retrieve her.
Both racing team leaders describe elaborate pre-race training routines. Suby says Paycheck “runs wild to build up stamina and strength.” Ruby’s coach Craig Nemec, 39, feeds his speedy charge a pre-race diet of Texas grasshoppers. “They’re about 3 inches long,” he says with a wry smile.
Cuero’s Turkey Trot commemorates an early-1900s tradition when up to 20,000 turkeys were herded like cattle from farms through town to processing plants. Large crowds gathered to watch the annual turkey drive. Cuero leaders in 1912 transformed the fall cavalcade into a community celebration, now dubbed Turkeyfest.
Worthington, also once a leading turkey-raising town, started King Turkey Days in 1939. It now hosts a weeklong festival featuring sports events, class reunions, a turkey-calling contest and a grand parade, following the glorious yet giddy Great Gobbler Gallop.
Read more about Lew Hudson in The Brainerd (Minn.) Dispatch