To train animals for competition, Antal Gacs raised them in airy, clean surroundings with plenty of fresh water and top-quality feed. As they grew strong, he started to race them.
He bred from champion bloodlines. But his thoroughbreds still weighed less than a pound. Some of his racing pigeons were descendants of mighty birds that might be considered the ornithological equivalent of horse racing’s Secretariat or Man o’ War.
“Tony” Gacs, who kept racing pigeons ever since the age of 6 in his native Hungary, died July 15 at his Libertyville home after struggles with bladder and prostate cancer. He was 83.
After immigrating to America in 1956, he studied to be a tool-and-die maker, working at International Harvester in Melrose Park and Echo Products in Wheeling.
But on his own time, he was one of the most competitive pigeon racers in the Chicago area. Some of his flock were descendants of “Super 73,” a legendary flyer from Europe who pecked up wins like birdseed, said Andy Waclaw, president of the Greater Chicago Combine, a 180-member group of pigeon fanciers.
“Last year, he paid $3,600 for a bird that came in fourth in a 350-mile race,” Waclaw said. “He was one of the top guys in Chicago.”
“He would put in every effort — the best food, the best bird,” said Dan Andronic, owner of Belmont Feed & Seed, 3036 W. Belmont.
Mr. Gacs shipped some of his baby birds to Hawaii and Africa, where they trained for major competitions, including the feathered version of the Kentucky Derby: the South African Million Dollar Pigeon Race.
Also known as homing pigeons, racing pigeons have a boomerang-like instinct to return home, which made them valued little soldiers of World War II. Back then, a reconnaissance soldier might carry a bird into hostile territory. When he figured out the safest way to advance, he’d free his pigeon, which flew back to its mobile coop — and his fellow soldiers — carrying a message attached to its leg or back, according to a 2007 “Pigeons of War” article by Joe Razes in World War II Magazine.
“Very few messages were codes,” Razes wrote, “because pigeons were so dependable at reaching their destination.”
One famed pigeon, named GI Joe, was credited with saving 1,000 British soldiers. After they took an Italian town, he made it back to base to warn off Allied fighters readying to bomb the area. GI Joe received an English award for gallantry. When he died at the Detroit Zoo in 1961, newspaper headlines lamented the loss of a “Pigeon Hero.”
It was a beautiful sight when Mr. Gacs let his birds out of their backyard loft, said Eleonor, his wife of 52 years.
“They make a big circle over the house,” she said.
He knew every one, she said: “You point it out, he knew it.”
Every once in a while, wild or “common” pigeons would join them in flight. Sometimes, young racing pigeons answered the call of the wild, winging away with their common cousins, his wife said.
“He was a great pigeon flyer,” said John Rems, a fellow pigeon fancier. “He would do supplements, probiotics, red cider vinegar to keep the colon right.”
After a race, Mr. Gacs added electrolytes to the birds’ water. He vaccinated them for pigeon pox.
Often, he drove his birds to Marengo, where he’d free them for training.
They always beat him home, Rems said.
On a racer’s return, an electronic device inside the coop scans a chip in its legband. Winners are computed by most yards covered per minute.
In addition to replacing birds lost to hawks, Mr. Gacs had to rebuild his flock after a 2008 loft fire.
“He had to start all over,” said his wife, who met him at a dance at the old German restaurant Zum Deutschen Eck (the German Corner) on the North Side near St. Alphonsus Church, where they got married in 1965.
Services have been held. Mr. Gacs is also survived by a daughter, Natalie Schuetz; a son, Anthony; a sister, Kati Tarnai; brothers Miki, Bandi, Juri and Laci; five grandchildren — and about 50 racing pigeons.