Special Report: Cockfighting

In a bid to broaden our appeal to the vegetarian community, InsideEdge’s Stephen McDowell provides an in-depth guide to the noble art of cockfighting. There’s money to be made from this savage sport, but it’s not for you if you’re chicken – cockadoodle-don’t say we didn’t warn you.

You’re on holiday in the Philippines and while sitting, slurping a beer on a street corner, you watch, intrigued, as two street urchins row about whose father has the largest cock.

But your punter’s heart is gladdened, for you know that the real meaning behind their playful banter is not their parents’ impressive peckers, but the size of the peckers in their back yards.

Your pulse quickens as you sense an in – a little inside information to give you an advantage. For the likelihood is that these runts are as skinny as junkyard dogs because their fathers are feeding all their family’s most nutritious grub to the bulging-eyed, feathered psycho in the garden, in preparation for a big, upcoming cockfight. An opportunity for a bloodthirsty punt has reared its scaly head.

Yes, believe it or not, in the Philippines, the mediaeval sport of cockfighting – or ‘sabong’ as they call it – is still legal. In fact, sabong has not only survived the middle ages, but is so popular it is considered the second national sport after basketball. It has even made it onto the internet.

Millions of dollars a year are gambled by the locals on cockfighting, at bouts in cock-pits, called ‘galleras’. There are 1,700 of these poultry-punishing palaces in the Philippines – they outnumber churches. From the senators at the top of society to the guy who sweeps the streets, this is a sport that crosses all social boundaries.

Big cocks online

But the best news for the unsqueamish punter who wants to join in the fun is that the Philippines national gaming corporation, Philweb, and a private company, Pagcor, have created an online cockfighting betting system called TeleSabong. Go to philwebinc.com for more details.

‘With the popularity of cockfighting in the Philippines, we are very optimistic about the potential of this new format,’ said Roberto V Ongpin and Alex Villamar, PhilWeb chairman and president respectively, in the company’s letter to shareholders in May.

The owners reckon the brand new site will attract betting action worth more than $1 billion a year. Here you will be able to join in the spirit of the fighting cock in such lucrative and enormously popular events as the subtly-named World Slasher Cup, contested in June in the mighty Araneta Coliseum by eight gamecocks.

A 12-hour DVD of the World Slasher Cup, described as ‘three days of gruelling battles’ by one aficionado on the website, is available from sabong.net.ph. Presumably it’s rather more gruelling for the cocks than anybody else. Honours last time around were shared by two partially filleted cocks, trained by the exotically named Honey Yu and Louie Cua – ‘gaffers’ in the cockfighting argot.

Fighting cocks rarely have names but instead are known by their strain or breed. Good examples of champion strains are yellow-legged hatches, Boston roundheads and McLean hatches. The Kentucky hatch line is currently being touted as the one to dominate the pits for years to come – a rottweiler amongst roosters.

It is disappointing that the birds’ names do not seem to be widely used, as one could have a lot of fun, lumping on, say, Jack The Pecker, or Istabeaq. You could even ‘lay’, if you’ll excuse the pun, Colonel Sanders, on Betfair.

Feathered fiends

But enough of all this. You need to look at the rules of the game before you can understand how the punts work. It goes roughly like this:

Two roosters of roughly comparable weight are tossed into the ring by their gaffers and fight in ten-minute bouts until one is dead or comes over all, er, chicken. Each cock is armed, with one, or more usually, two nasty-looking steel spurs called ‘tadi’.

If both birds are still alive and showing fight at the end, the ref (whose reputation for evenhandedness must be unimpeachable) declares a winner, who then heads off to get stitched up by the ‘cock doctor’ – stop that giggling at the back, it’s true (actually, it might be fun to license oneself as a cock doctor, for no other reason than that it looks impressive on a business card).

The loser, meanwhile, heads off to a fate familiar to poultry the world over.

The roosters are fed on special and often secret formulae, vitamin supplements and even steroids – anything which works as a booster for the rooster, so to speak. Top feeds change hands for a lot of money and it is often said that they eat better than the owners’ children.

There are sometimes special matches called ‘carambolas’, where five or more birds are put in the ring and fight it out until there’s only one cock standing. It is not known if there is a penalty system if one bird commits a fowl, however.

Poultry, but not paltry

The big fights, though, the Class A ones, are called ‘derbies’. The amount of money changing hands on these is vast, with purses ranging from US$10,000 to US$170,000.

When a big fight is in the offing, it is said that Manila awakes to a cock-adoodledoo-ing of symphonic proportions as the over-fed and hormoned cockerels let fly some pre-match testosterone.

Just as in the horses or footie, cockfighting has specialist bookies. Bets go as high as 500,000 pesos (about £4,800) and it is not unknown for houses, land titles, jewellery and car registrations to be wagered.

Actually placing a bet is a nightmare for the uninitiated – a bit like explaining the LBW rule to an American or the finer points of tic-tac to Stevie Wonder – so is better off done in the company of a friendly local.

Bets are indicated by a series of hand signals, such as the wiggling of a thumb or the wagging of a hand and the position of the palm, whether up, vertical, or down, means that bets are in tens, hundreds or thousands of pesos. The man who calls the bets is the ‘kristo’, so called because his extended-armed posture resembles Christ on the cross. If you win, it is customary to tip the kristo 10% of your winnings. That’s not a habit that’s going to catch on in the UK, we hope.

In essence, you can bet either on the favourite cock, called the ‘ilamado’, or the ‘dejado’ – the one who is more of a favourite for the coq au vin.

Pay-day comes if the dejado, not keen on the broiler, wins. The odds start at 10% and go up to 50%, or even as high as 100%, if the favourite is pitted against a lesser-known rooster

If that all sounds a bit complicated, that’s because it is. However, soon, TeleSabong will allow you to bet online. The game results will be based on an outcome or series of outcomes from a four-cock derby, with betting formats following the traditional cockfighting formats such as singles, parlays, and ‘pick the derby champion’. Bets are placed either online or through Pagcor’s 312 internet sports betting stations.

Poussin in boots

Cockfighting was understandably outlawed in most parts of the world many years ago, but it operates on a small scale in parts of Asia, Mexico, the Middle East and Spain as well as the US. In Indonesia, meanwhile, although the sport and gambling are prohibited, you can still find a fight if you want to. There is a very complex system of odds on the underdog and much emphasis is placed on the colours of the birds fighting.

So far, even in 2004, Filipino machismo has held out against the entreaties of generations of animal rights campaigners. With the sums of money involved, who can be surprised?

In the meantime, there are probably some questions left in the air for the average InsideEdge reader, the first of which is probably, ‘How can you actually profit from cockfighting?’ [I think that's enough cockfighting for now - Ed.]

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