'Lewis Hamilton of pigeons' sold for world record €1.25m

A racing pigeon has been sold for a world record €1.25m (£1.1m) as a result of prices being driven sky-high by a craze for bird racing among an elite group of Chinese enthusiasts.

Joël Verschoot, 63, from Ingelmunster in west Flanders, said his bird, Armando, was born to be a champion but he had never dreamed of such a huge sum being paid for it.

“The two Chinese had told me in advance that they absolutely wanted Armando,” he said. “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.”

During the final hour of a two-week online auction, one bidder known as “XDDPO” had repeatedly upped their offer by €100,000, only for a second account, known as “Champ Team”, to put in bids of €2,000 more.

When the auction came to a close at midday on Sunday, the final bid of €1,252,000 smashed the previous record of €400,000 paid by Xing Wei, a Chinese property tycoon, in 2017 for another of Verschoot’s pigeons, known as Nadine.

Verschoot, a retired abattoir manager who claims to know all 500 of his birds by name, said he spent 12 hours a day working with his pigeons since dedicating himself to his hobby.

“Ten hours a day in the pigeon loft and two hours of administration in the evening,” he said. “I have now earned more in two weeks than in those 40 years [at the abattoir].”

According to an online brochure, Verschoot’s birds are said to find tricky flying weather a “piece of cake” and to be “killers” when benefiting from a headwind on a warm and sunny day.

But Armando, who will be bred with a hen purchased for a large sum that is waiting in China, is said to be special.

“In 2017 and 2018 he was the best in Belgium, and in 2018 the best in Europe,” Verschoot said of Armando. “Three years ago, it was clear that he would reach the top.”

Armando, who is five years old and nearing retirement age, is said to have an exceptional sense of direction and remarkable wing strength. He was described as the “Lewis Hamilton of pigeons” by Fred Vencaillie, a pigeon fancier in Perwez, west Flanders, before the sale.

Asked what he planned to do with his windfall, Verschoot told the Het Nieuwsblad newspaper: “Nothing special.”

Pigeon industry insiders said half a dozen Chinese enthusiasts were responsible for the huge sums being paid in recent years, with races becoming increasingly competitive and at times cut-throat.

Last year, two professional pigeon racers in China were sentenced to three years in jail for cheating in a 466-mile (750km) race by smuggling their birds on to a bullet train to the competition’s finish line.

The men, Gong and Zhang, had earned €140,000 in prize money for winning the 2017 Shanghai homing pigeon race before their fraud was discovered.


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