CENTRAL POINT — As the bugle calls, piglets Al Pigone, Sour Dough Jack, Soapy Smith and Bob, the five-time grand champion, trot into their stalls to wild applause.
The sound of whinnying horses fills the air. The racing bell rings, and the gates burst open.
"They're off!" yells the announcer.
The piglets sprint around the horseshoe-shaped track as if running for their lives, all intent on the ultimate goal — a trough filled with animal crackers.
With the pigs taken out, of course.
Though the All-Alaskan Racing Pigs have been blazing through county fairs for 23 years, this is their first time at the Jackson County Fair, the organizers said.
Al Pigone and Darth Oinker along with six other pigs are running races at 2, 4, 6 and 8 p.m. daily in the Compton Arena.
Their athletic prowess impressed fairgoers, who didn't know a pig could be so versatile.
"I never saw a pig race before and I never saw a pig jump a hurdle," said 83-year-old Ashland resident Alveriah "Al" Dreiszus, who's been coming to the fair for 20 years with her friend Selma Peck of Medford.
"The thing I thought was neat is that they played the Kentucky Derby race tune," Peck said. "It was very enjoyable."
All-Alaskan Racing Pigs crew member Taylor Noll said there's often a misconception among audiences that the pigs are Alaskan.
"There is no difference between Alaskan pigs and regular pigs," Noll said. The 20-week-old racing piglets are a cross between the Yorkshire and Hampshire breeds and weigh about 30 pounds each.
Another misconception is that the crew lives in Alaska. The team is headquartered in Eugene, although founder Bart Noll was born and raised in Fairbanks, Alaska, where he first started the team in 1987 to help pay for his college education.
The racing team is a family business run by some of Bart Noll's five sons and several college students trying to pay their way through school. Bart Noll and his wife remain at headquarters while the crew works fairs from Washington state to Southern California between June and October.
"Our first crowd was the biggest that I've ever had," race announcer Jordon Nowotny said of the crowd of 500 on opening day at the Jackson County Fair. Nowotny is a theater arts major from Lane Community College in Eugene who's worked two fair venues this summer and appreciates honing his improvisational skills.
When it comes to pig puns, Nowotny just can't help himself.
The T-shirts the crew sells at the booth were designed by "Calvin Swine."
At the end of the race, the athletes "always pig out."
The pigs are so good that "someday they may be on the cover of Snorts Illustrated."
And then there are the pig jokes.
"Bob isn't the smartest tool in the shed," Nowotny said. "He was once invited to a barbecue, and he actually showed."
The audience ate it all up, of course.
"I remember watching them when I was a kid at one of the fairs," said fairgoer Denise Fain. She took her daughter Bailey to the race in a baby stroller. "There's a lot of people who came to watch it."
Two miniature pedal-operated tractors sit in the middle of the racetrack for a tractor-pull event the crew holds between races for kids ages 4 through 12. The kids pull a predetermined weight for their age group for up to 30 feet. All contestants win a prize.
Romelle Hoff said she visits the fair on Senior Day every year and appreciated seeing people at the race in walkers and wheelchairs.
She said she enjoyed watching the pigs race, but added with a laugh, "I thought they were going to drive the tractors."
Vera Westbrook is a reporting intern for the Mail Tribune and can be reached at email@example.com.