Chinese bidders smashed the world record fee for a racing pigeon after going head-to-head in the dying minutes of an online auction for the “Lewis Hamilton” of pigeons.
The victorious pigeon fancier, whose identity is secret, spent more than £1 million to land Armando, a Belgian bird considered to be the “best long distance pigeon of all time”. The previous record was a relatively paltry £340,000, a third of the winning bid, for a pigeon called Nadine.
Pigeon racing is big business in China, with millionaire enthusiasts striving to outdo each other with extravagant coops and outlandish bets laid on the outcome of races. While the sport has been flagging in popularity in Europe, wealthy Chinese interest has revitalised it.
Armando’s breeder Joël Verschoot was left stunned as, in the final moments of the fortnight-long auction, it emerged that two Chinese bidders were directly competing with each other. Every time the bidder "XDDPO" increased the offer by €100,000, another — “Champ Team” — bid an extra €2,000. After an hour-long battle, XDDPO emerged triumphant with a sky-high €1.25 million bid.
Armando, who at five years old is nearing the end of his racing life, will now take a plane flight to China and be put out to stud with an expensive hen in the hope of producing more star racers.
Mr Verschoot, 63, said, “The two Chinese had told me in advance that they absolutely wanted Armando. But I didn't see this coming. This is a crowning glory of all those years in the pigeon sport. The icing on the cake."
"No one expected that the magical cap of a million euros would be pulverized,” the Belgian site Pigeon Paradise said, after the final bid. The site running the auction breathlessly declared, “This is a magnificent bird with exceptional strength, and he is already a record-breaking pigeon. Words fail to describe this fantastic pigeon.”
Mr Verschoot, who lives in West Flanders in Belgium, has been involved in pigeons for 50 years, catching the bug from his father. After 40 years working in an abattoir, he retired and was able to concentrate all his time on his hobby.
"I have now earned more in two weeks than in those 40 years," he said, after the crowning of the world’s most expensive pigeon and the sale of another 177 pigeons netted him a total of more than £1.7 million. The slaughterhouse manager insists he knows each of his 500 birds by name after spending more than 12 hours a day in his pigeon loft.
Racing pigeons are taken hundreds of miles from their home lofts and released. The first back home wins in races that can see average speeds of more than 50 miles an hour over 600 miles and much faster over shorter distances.
Armando is so sought after because of his exceptional strength that allows him to race in all weather conditions. The numerous members of his progeny can fetch more than £21,000.
Verschoot pigeons are said to find tricky flying conditions “a piece of cake” and are “killers” when surfing on a headwind from a warm and sunny day.
"He has never lost a race" Mr Verschoot told the Het Nieuwsblad newspaper. “In 2017 and 2018 he was the best in Belgium and in 2018 the best in Europe”.
In his final racing year, Armando — described locally as the “Lewis Hamilton” of pigeons — triumphed in the First Olympic Pigeon in Poznan, Poland, but the seeds of his future greatness were there to be seen from his very first race.
“It was clear that he would reach the top,” said Mr Verschoot, “ After 600 kilometres of flying, he was the second at national level. Out of 15,000 pigeons. If a pigeon can fly second, then you know that it can also win.”
“It will hurt to see him leave. But who knows, maybe we will grow another Armando within a few years " he added.
Asked what he planned to do with his record-breaking payday, Mr Verschoot, who also bred Nadine, the previous record holder, said, “nothing special”.
The Chinese pigeon racing scene is increasingly cut-throat. Last year two men were sentenced to three years in prison for cheating in a 466-mile race. The fraudsters had smuggled the birds onto a bullet train to the finish line.