May 27

A Night at the (Turtle) Races

I had been looking forward to the Turtle Races for months, ever since my friend Michelle told me about the bar that hosted it down the street from her husband’s old neighborhood.   We had planned to go before, but I’d gotten sick and wasn’t able to attend.  So when the e-mail titled “Turtle racing?” arrived in my inbox last week, I was all over it.

Big Joe's Chicago, IL

All week, I had built up this picture in my mind of what it would be like – the pageantry of the turtle arrivals, my excitement at being selected as a “turtle jockey,” the thrill of victory.  I even researched what turtles like to eat so I could fill my pockets with carrots and spinach as turtle bribery.  When I told Michelle about my plan, she was concerned that I would get kicked out of the bar.  She also reminded me that I’d worked hard for my law license and probably wouldn’t want to risk it over illegal enticement of a turtle or whatever the charge may be.  She had a point.  When we arrived at the bar, I checked out the race platform and noted how easily I could’ve greased it with a butter pat so my turtle could slide to victory.  Next time, perhaps.

For the uninitiated, here’s how turtle racing works:

Every Friday night at 9 p.m. at Big Joe’s, six turtles will “race” their way out of a circle in the middle of a table.  The first one outside the circle wins.  Spectators who wish to become “turtle jockeys” must purchase drinks from the bar.  For each drink purchased, you earn tickets that are entered into a random drawing to determine the jockeys.  If your ticket is drawn, you select a ping-pong ball with a number on it that corresponds to a turtle.  That’s your turtle for the round.  The winning turtle’s jockey wins a turtle t-shirt or turtle thong (for clarification purposes, it’s a thong with turtles on it, as opposed to a turtle-sized thong).  The losing turtle earns its jockey a free drink.  If it’s taking too long (and it can, they’re turtles, remember), the announcer calls it by selecting the turtle closest to the starting point.  There are six heats, including a final race where all the winning jockeys race turtles for a chance to compete for a trip to Las Vegas.  The rules are simple.  You cannot touch the turtles, but can do anything else to incentivize your turtle to win.  (Dammit, I should’ve brought the celery!)  The turtles are introduced, with great fanfare for number 5, Jolanda (pronounced Yolanda), also known as “ the slowest f-ing turtle in the world!”  As you can see, she’s twice the size of the other turtles.

Jolanda, the "slowest f-ing turtle in the world!"

“Post time” was scheduled for 9 p.m. Friday night, which was a big, fat lie.  It was 9:49 p.m. when the turtle wrangler arrived.  I checked.  I was not selected for the first round.  Or the second.  By this point, my excitement was dwindling.  I had gone from “I am totally coming to this every freakin’ week!” to “I’m never coming to the stupid turtle races ever again” in the span of 30 minutes.  I was about to call it a night when my numbers were called – woo hoo!  It was my turn!  I hurried to the front of the table and triumphantly gave my winning ticket to the announcer.

My turtle, Big Dan, was very confused

I was paired with number 6, Big Dan.  I tried to make eye contact with him (her?) to let him know that I was there for him, that we were a team, and we were going to smoke the competition.  We took our respective places, Big Dan in the center and me on the outside of the platform.  3, 2, 1…go!  And then I became THAT GIRL.  You know, the one who tried to rationalize with her turtle, to urge him to victory, repeating the words “Go, go, go, go!” in a friendly, supportive manner, until we were locked out of first place, then switching to “Turn it around! Turn it around!” with the accompanying U-turn hand motion to get Big Dan to hurry back to the starting line so we could capture the free drink consolation prize.  We – didn’t win.  Big Dan came in second to last place, which is the worst place to get in turtle racing (no free drink, nothing!)  At least I got to race, but next time, I’m bringing produce.

Turtles take your places


  1. jan brady

    Not to be a jerk, but I think TECHNICALLY (<—- wanted that to be italics, but don't have that option on my phone… just so you don't think I'm yelling, or anything) speaking, I do believe you were jockeying a tortoise. Not that it really matters- you didn't leave with a free drink or a free thong anyway. 🙁

    1. Lindsay

      While one of them may have been a tortoise, I stand by my statement that there were turtles in the race. Also, the banner said “Turtle Racing” and since it was in writing, it couldn’t possibly be false, right?

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