It’s tough to figure out what traits will make a piglet into a snout-nosed rocket with wings on its hooves and a stride that would make Secretariat jealous.
Unlike the thoroughbreds at the Del Mar racetrack, there isn’t an exhaustive tip sheet, programs or lists of recent workouts to help pick the fastest hog at Swifty Swine’s Racing Pigs, a perennial favorite attraction at the San Diego County Fair.
It’s a skill that isn’t much more than guesswork. There are, however, theories about how to pick the fastest.
“Probably one with long legs,” Anthony Simons from Alpine said as he waited for one of the races to start.
A piglet’s legs might not be the issue; by the time it grows tall, it likely to have some girth, making it too wide to squeeze through the pack of three other hogs on the racetrack. Simons suggested that, like thoroughbreds, a breeding program for racing pigs might make a champion.
“Probably an odd-shaped pig with long legs,” he said.
Kathryn Sedano from Asuza had a different strategy: pick the littlest pig.
“I think probably the size,” Sedano said. “I think the smaller they are, the faster they are. They can probably just squeeze through.”
A veterinarian technician who trained on swine, Sedano might be as close as it gets to expert commentator on this athletic pursuit. No matter their build, pigs tend to be swift on their hooves, she said.
“I think that pigs would be good to race. They like to bolt,” Sedano said.
Plus, they’re easy to train, so it won’t take them long to learn how to run around the racecourse, she said.
Not that it would be too difficult - it’s a 150-foot woodchip-covered racetrack with two left turns.
Zach Johnson, the owner of the racing pig show, offered a third strategy to pick the winner: Look the piglet straight in its little eyes.
“You want to see the fire, you need to see it burning,” he said.
He’s raced pigs at the San Diego fair for 20 years, and besides the pigs and their pun-filled names, the show doesn’t change, he said. It’s one of those things like livestock, corn dogs, rides, and contests that people expect from the fair.
“It’s in that formula that they come for,” he said.
So six times a day, Johnson and his team and his pigs put on a show before a standing-room-only crowd. “Kevin Bacon,” “Kim Kardashi-ham, “Brad Pigg” and others pigs with names from the news and gossip columns run a lap around as they dash toward a plate of Oreo cookies.
The last race of the show - a political contest - put “Nancy Pig-losi,” “Ba-Rack O’Ribs Obama,” “Hillary Rob-Ham Clinton,” and “Donald TRump-Roast” against each other. Just seconds after they bounded out of the starting gates the pigs got into a bit of a scrap as they went into the first turn, distracting themselves with infighting that stopped them from doing the job that they were sent there to do. Eventually, they sorted themselves out and Obama won by a few feet.
Johnson, from a town outside Dallas, said the pig nicknames change with time, and the new monikers come to him as he drives during the nine months he’s on the road. It might be a little dated now, but his favorite is “Shaquille O’Squeal,” he said.
Del Mar, it turns out, is ideal for pig racing, he said. The weather is always cool, which is good for the animals because they don’t get overheated.
On Sunday, it might have been ideal for non-pigs too. Now in its third week, the fair was packed and temperatures were in the low-70s, a cool reprieve as the region goes through a mini-heat wave.
There’s another secret to picking a good pig, Johnson said. They need to like the Oreo cookies he leaves at the end of the racetrack for the fastest piglet to gobble up. To the winner goes the Oreos.
If cookies are the carrots that get a pig to hustle, there’s also, as chance would have it, a stick just outside the mini-stadium that might give them another reason to run. There are two massive barbecues just a few feet away, and, like at any fair, pulled pork, sausages and pork chops are on the menu.
Not that grilled fare is an immediate fate. Johnson said that some pigs go to his mother’s petting zoo after they retire from running, and many are donated to 4-H programs.