New Mexico State Fair is off to the races

Race announcer Robert Duck, far left, encourages competitors during the Great American Duck Race on Thursday, opening day at the New Mexico State Fair. A mask mandate may have limited the crowd size. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal.)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

It’s opening day at the New Mexico State Fair and the guy running the Great American Duck Race pulls out his wallet to show his New Mexico driver’s license.

“You see, I’m not kidding,” he says, revealing proof that his name is really, truly Robert Wayne Duck.

In fact, Duck’s ducks won the Great American Duck Race 12 times in Deming, where the races originated about 1980, earning Duck a guest spot on the former “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson.

Don’t believe it? Duck, from Bosque Farms, also keeps a wallet picture of himself sitting in the guest seat next to Carson. Other TV guest appearances followed, as did stories in newspapers and People magazine.

“It got to be so much fun, I thought there’s got to be some way to make a living at this,” Duck said. “So, we put this show together, started testing it and it was very well received. So, I sold my jewelry business in Albuquerque in 1999 and began doing this full time.”

Duck’s Great American Duck Race is now a feature at 39 state fairs. They have raced at nine state fairs just this year and “every one of those fairs has set attendance records,” he said.

Duck couldn’t help but notice that Thursday’s opening-day attendance was clearly on the thin side, and attributed it to the COVID mask mandate and requirement that everybody age 12 and older show their vaccination cards before entering. Still, he said he was optimistic that things would pick up during the State Fair’s 11-day run.

Last year’s State Fair was canceled due to the pandemic and this year’s fair saw the cancellation of the Junior Livestock Show and Sale because of a statewide uptick in cases caused by the virus’ delta variant.

A number of food and merchandise vendors also expressed disappointment at the smaller-than-usual opening day attendance.

Catherine Padilla, operator of the German Wurst food booth in the Lujan A Building, said it was the smallest opening day crowd she has seen in 18 years. David Friedman, who was manning a Dreamstyle remodeling display, said “it’s not quite a ghost town,” but the small number of people who walked through the building seemed excited to be there.

Indeed, many visitors were happy to dodge the crowds and commotion.

Laurinda Armijo was attending the fair with her spouse and their 4-year-old son Avi.

“We lucked out. It was free parking and $2 admission. There were no lines to get in. We just showed our vaccine cards and came right through. Quick and easy, and no waiting to get food. We’re really enjoying this. It’s calm. Normally, it would be crazy,” she said.

Anna Montoya was focused on her children, ages 5, 7 and 9, interacting with small animals in the petting farm. “I’ve got my hands full just keeping an eye on them, so there’s really no downside for me in dealing with smaller crowds and shorter lines,” she said.

Lane Valenzuela,10, left, and his friend Sammy Lyle, 11, wait at an outdoor food court for Lane’s dad to bring some food Thursday morning. Both boys are from Belen and are junior bull-riding champions competing in the youth rodeo at Tingley Coliseum during the New Mexico State Fair. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Lane Valenzuela, 10, and his friend, Sammy Lyle, 11, were waiting on Lane’s dad to bring them food. The boys, from the Belen area, are junior rodeo bull-riding champions who qualified to compete in the upcoming world finals in Mesquite, Texas, said Lane’s dad, Ruben Valenzuela. They would be competing later in the day in the youth rodeo at Tingley Coliseum.

In the meantime, they said they were hoping to eat funnel cakes, their favorite fair food, and maybe enjoy some rides on the midway.

The winner of this year’s Unique Foods Contest was Rex’s Hamburgers, which cooked up a green chile cheese pancake burger — a traditional burger and condiments between two fluffy pancakes and a side of syrup. (Courtesy of Nathaniel Paolinelli/NM State Fair)

Over in the Pavilion tent, a small, but enthusiastic, crowd was watching the Unique Foods Contest in which fair vendors were competing for bragging rights, as well as a steep discount on next year’s State Fair food booth rental fee.

A panel of local TV news personalities judged Rex’s Hamburgers the best entry with its green chile cheese pancake burger, a traditional burger and condiments placed between two fluffy pancakes with a side of syrup.

The stiff competition also included such unique gastrointestinal creations as turkey leg frybread; bacon-wrapped, deep-fried peanut butter and jelly on white bread; carne asada deep-fried nachos; spicy deep-fried bacon elote (corn on the cob); deep-fried buffalo and elk bites; and frybread Indian pie.

Foodies might want to note that the Battle of the Salsas will take place Saturday at 1 p.m. and the Green Chile Cheeseburger Challenge will be held Monday at noon.

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