No Goats, No Glory
There are few moments more surreal than watching a herd of humans trying to coax a pack of bleating goats to run down the third-base line of a baseball diamond.
But when you add in a burly, bearded brewer holding the leashes of two three-legged goats in the shadow of Three Mile Island, I can only be standing in one location – Falmouth.
It’s called the Falmouth Goat Races, and it started as a practical joke 35 years ago – just months after the entire Northeast was nearly turned into a toxic wasteland. Ever since 1979, the village that stands within eye shot of nuclear Ground Zero has turned into a Mecca of small-town strangeness for one day out of the year, as people from far and near travel with goats decked out in crazy costumes – everything from green mohawks and pink hats to bandanas and tiny knights on their backs – all to see who can get across the finish line without falling on their ass.
I had to see it for myself, so I decided to make the leisurely jaunt up River Road to catch the action of the 2013 installment of weirdness.
THE RACE OF 2013
I arrive on a bright yellow school bus – me and a few dozen other spectators sitting on bench seats like elementary-school kids, ready for today’s lesson on the folly of the human experience.
We make the turn up Turnpike Road to Governor Stables Park, just outside this river town in northwestern Lancaster County – the horror of those four cooling towers marring the skyline as if someone sprayed graffiti on the canvas of an Andrew Wyeth landscape.
I stumble off the bus and try to get my bearings.
A cover band has set up on the back of a black flatbed truck, pumping a soundtrack of wretched ’80s pop songs and dusty ’70s classic rock across Gerber Field (unfortunately the Rolling Stones’ Goats Head Soup was not on the playlist).
I’m here to see goat racing (and find out what possesses someone to engage in such an endeavor), but the carnival sideshow of other proceedings quickly pulls my attention in dozens of directions.
Everywhere I look, some weird contest is taking place. People are spitting Tootsie Rolls for distance, gorging themselves on halves of fresh watermelon, attempting to blow massive gum-bubbles and – God help us – gambling on where a cow will take a shit on a giant bingo board.
There’s enough food here to choke a pig (although the only barnyard animals in sight are of the bearded variety). Peach and pumpkin pies, french fries, ham loaf sandwiches, all kinds of meat – anything these people could possibly cram down their collective gullet.
I watch as a massive Rastafarian man with dreadlocks past his knees stands mesmerized, looking on as homemade ice cream is churned in an ice cream maker turned by a century-old steam-powered hit-and-miss engine. (I can only assume by his actions that the Rastafarian had already consumed a fair amount of Jamaican Red Hair.)
Holy Christ, I’m hungry.
I’m also slightly amazed to see hundreds of people milling around the park – 93-year-old men and 8-month-old babies; people who have traveled from foreign lands – Indians, Moroccans – all drawn by the same collective lunacy, the siren call of goat racing.
A SHORT LESSON ON GOAT RACING
Even before I got to the race, I had to look into the history of goat racing for myself. Apparently it dates back hundreds of years to the May Day traditions of Germany. So besides hoisting a flagpole, tying some ribbons to it and dancing around like some drug-crazed pagans, it was also customary to pull along those alien, horizontal-pupil-eyed, devil-horned beasts with the cute, floppy ears.
As far as the modern incarnation, the seaside town of Buccoo on the island of Tobago in the Caribbean has become the official “Goat Racing Capital of the World,” boasting a $100 million racetrack and stables dedicated entirely to the sport of racing goats. (Not only can the nation of Trinidad & Tobago boast to being the “Goat Racing Capital of the World,” it also carries the title of “Tar Pit Capital of the World.”)
I want to know more about how Falmouth became home to goat racing, so I track down former resident Ken Brandt. He tells me the story of the time he decided to pull a prank on his friend – the late Glenn Hipple. The two had commented for months that pet goats were showing up in people’s front yards all over town, and Hipple remarked that they should organize a goat race.
Brandt says he was “feeling the devil” and decided to take out a quarter-page ad in the local newspaper calling for the first Falmouth Goat Race with a date, time and place – with Hipple’s name and phone number as the contact. Within a day, Hipple’s home was inundated with phone calls, and the Falmouth Goat Race was born.
“There were a lot of people at first that thought it was a big joke,” Brandt says. “We thought this was a once-and-done thing, but it’s so unusual.”
LET THE RACES BEGIN!
The unique character of the goat race has caused it to grow from a couple dozen people who turned out for the first race in 1979 to more than 3,000 crazed fanatics filling the bleachers and field throughout the day.
They cheer wildly as portly men and tiny girls race with reckless abandon down the 90-foot track of the baseball diamond – some goats being pulled, others doing the pulling and even more yanking so hard they escape, with dejected runners left lying in the grass and sandy dirt.
I’m bewildered as an on-the-loose goat makes a beeline for the sidelines of the course, causing a young girl to get tangled in the rope and spun around three times in the air like a pinwheel.
Presiding over every heat is the event emcee, Gina Mariani. She’s dressed in a green T-shirt with the slogan “It’s Goattastic,” bright yellow shorts, hot pink tights, a hat with goat horns, orange-and-blue-striped socks and a pair of purple Crocs – the perfect outfit for the theater of the absurd.
“It’s a dangerous sport, people,” Mariani announces through the PA system as another contestant is pulled to the ground. “You never know what can happen in this race.”
Standing nearby is Colin Presby of the hamlet of Wooltown in Berks County – a full-time brewer at Golden Avalanche in Kutztown and part-time goat racer. He’s in charge of Team Peggy and Team Simon – a pair of three-legged pet goats he helped rescue and now races to raise awareness and money for animal welfare groups.
The goats have become celebrities at the other well-known goat race in the country – the annual Sly Fox Bock Fest & Goat Race held at the Phoenixville craft brewery each May. His goats have won at Sly Fox three years in a row and have become favorites at Falmouth – a never-ending stream of people posing for pictures with the three-legged beasts.
“Goats are fantastic,” Presby says. “They’re mischievous and independent creatures. They get into trouble, but they’re always good stories and good fun.”
I’m still in a daze coming to grips with everything I’ve seen. But around the edge of my consciousness, I’m beginning to understand the lure of the goats.
On the school bus ride back to reality, past those ominous cooling towers, I want a drink (there’s no booze at this festival – a glaring oversight), but I also want something else.
I want to go back again in 2014.
The 35th annual Falmouth Goat Races take place at Gerber Field at Governor Stables Park in Falmouth on Saturday, September 27 from 9 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Admission is free. Parking is $3 per car. Click here for more information.