A group of heritage turkeys run around a track as they chase down "Big Red", a miniature monster truck filled with turkey feed, during a Wild West Turkey Stampede Race on Friday at the Orange County Fair in Costa Mesa. (KEVIN CHANG, Daily Pilot / August 8, 2014)

  • Related
  •  Photo: 
  •  Photo: 

Nancy Riegler is the first to admit that nobody plans to spend a lifetime racing turkeys.

"It was a happy accident," she said of the Wild West Turkey Stampede, which made its Costa Mesa debut Wednesday at the Orange County Fair.

"The weirdest midlife crisis two adults could ever be going through," she said of herself and her husband, Gil.

Riegler used to do an exotic-bird show with animals such as parrots and kookaburras. The idea for turkey races germinated when California State Fair organizers told her they wanted to integrate turkeys into the event, held annually in Sacramento.

Riegler knew ostriches, camels and skunks could race, as could goldfish and dachshunds. She figured the Thanksgiving fowl could handle the challenge too.

The turkey racing is now in its 12th year and, like most animal races, "It taps into something visceral," Riegler said. "People kind of get into that frenzied, giddy excitement."

That proved true Friday, when the stands at the Orange County Fair livestock ring were packed with people waiting for the 2 p.m. show.

"We're new!" Riegler said into the microphone as she greeted the crowd. "We're the new kids on the block!"

Energetic and excited, Riegler introduced her husband, who would be operating a remote-controlled red pickup called Big Red.

Both were clad in jeans and red Turkey Stampede shirts. She had her curly hair pulled back, and he wore a cowboy hat. (The pair first met at a fair; Gil has a traveling camel dairy.)

Turkey feed was poured into the tiny truck.

"Big Red has now magically transformed into meals ..." Riegler began, letting the audience finish.

"On wheels!" the crowd yelled back.

The turkeys would be chasing the truck, or rather, the food inside it.

"These are the turkeys that we all invite into our homes in one form or another," Riegler said. (Yes, she eats turkey for Thanksgiving, but not one she knows, she said.)

Six turkeys, each about 4 months old, emerged from an air-conditioned trailer. Three were broad-breasted bronze, and the other three giant Holland white. The heaviest weighed about 40 pounds.

Then it was off to the races. Riegler opened the starting gate, and they waddled toward the snack-laden truck, their feet swinging awkwardly beneath their weight.

"I don't care who you are," Riegler said as the audience erupted in laughter, "that's funny right there."

After a brief intermission, during which members of the crowd tried to imitate a turkey gobble, out came 19 heritage turkeys to join the race. They are more like wild turkeys, smaller and faster than the first batch, Riegler said.

"It's a starting gate, not an oven," she said, coaxing the mix of three breeds — bourbon red, royal palm and blue slate — from the trailer.