Joanne Kaufman
November 23, 1987 12:00 PM

Robert W. Duck has no reason to get down—on himself. Since 1980 he’s won $25,000 racing his fleet-footed namesakes at the annual Great American Duck Race in Deming, N.Mex., and that, he’ll have you know, isn’t chicken feed. But Duck, 38, hasn’t simply feathered his nest. He has won six of eight finals since the two-day event was inaugurated, a webbed feat that has landed him in the Duck Racing Hall of Fame, which is actually a special section on the race entry form.

Last summer at Deming Duck Downs, Duck also broke the one-second barrier with his racing mallard Donna Spice, who covered the 16-foot course on the back lawn of the town courthouse in .98 seconds. But the 4½-month-old, four-lb. sprinter didn’t make it into the finals—a Duck duck named Oliver South won those—because, her irrepressible owner-trainer says, “she peaked too soon.” Peaking duck?

Duck went home from Deming this year with $4,300, and if the Great American Duck Race had a competition for corny names, he would have taken that too. Besides Donna and Oliver, Duck has trained Mallard Cosell, Oral Rodriguez (“l told him if he didn’t make it into the finals, the Lord was going to call him home”), Ivan Bosque, Vanna T. White and Sugar Ray Mallard. Then there was the legendary Duck Severinsen, so named after Robert Duck met the bandleader on The Tonight Show; Doc’s duck went on to win the 1983 Great American Duck Race.

Duck’s duck business does not require quite the same capital outlay as Arabian horses and Dobermans, which Duck also raises on his acre and a half in Bosque Farms, N.Mex., about 225 miles from Deming. His initial investment is a dollar each for day-old ducklings, which come from a Minnesota hatchery and are delivered overnight by express mail. After that he can feed his entire stable of 20 racers for only $500 a year. “They eat like birds,” explains Duck, who just can’t seem to help himself. Like any pro, he has his training secrets (“I certainly don’t goose them,” he says), but, if pressed, he will admit that the sport isn’t all that complicated. His training regimen is based on the fact that ducks don’t like to be picked up. “Their motivation to run is simply to get away from us,” Duck explains. “If they don’t run a training race right, we simply catch them and hold them again. They soon learn that the only way to get away is to run as fast as they can to the other end of the cage.” Then, just before post time, he whispers an inspirational message in his entry’s ear: “Be a winner or be dinner.”

He’s kidding, of course. Duck and Kathy, his wife of 17 years, have eaten duck exactly once, shortly after they were married. “We didn’t like it at all,” he says with a grimace. “And it would be a sacrilege for us to eat duck now.” In fact, when they’re through competing, the old racers remain part of the Ducks’ menagerie.

Duck grew up in Grants, N.Mex., where his father worked as a service-station attendant. After three years in the Army, he returned to New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, graduated in 1976, then worked for an Indian jewelry company before establishing his own turquoise jewelry distributorship, now headquartered in Albuquerque. Duck racing just came naturally. “When your name is Duck and you have plenty of land at home, you get some ducks, right?” he says. “We got two as pets. One morning on the radio, I heard a man from Deming who had come up with this crazy idea of racing ducks. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t that be fun, being named Duck and entering a duck race?’ I entered just for laughs.”

Today he is a little less casual. The Duck daily training program begins six weeks before the races at Deming and consists of a monitored run through a 24-foot wire cage. “If a duck has a good, fast run we don’t mess with it anymore that day,” says Duck. “But if it’s slow or runs into the wire wall, we make it do it again until it gets it right.” He attributes his success to thoroughness and dedication. “It’s all the little things we think about that other duck racers don’t,” he explains. “If a duck is hot, it becomes lethargic, so we keep them in the shade, keep them sprayed down with water.” It helps that his wife and two children, Sharon, 13, and Bryce, 10, take the races seriously too. “Most people don’t,” says Robert, “and they wait to train their ducks until maybe a day or two before the races. We watch their diets very closely, experiment with different types of grains and keep records of what they perform best on.”

His duck-racing dominance has made Duck something of a barnyard legend around New Mexico. “He has high energy and a great sense of humor about the races,” says Gov. Garrey Carruthers, himself a duck racer whose web-footed friends are trained by Duck. “The Deming race has had a great economic impact on the community. We’re all very proud of Robert Duck around here.” The champ occasionally talks about giving up his quack pack, but it wouldn’t be an easy move. Yes, he worries about hogging the winner’s circle, yet he can’t deny that he’s still having a fowl ball.

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