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At Fish Races, The Competition Is All Wet

March 13, 1993

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ Billy blew it.

On the biggest day of his short-lived racing career, the 2 1/2 -inch betta just floated there. He didn’t move a fin. And his 10-year-old owner was crushed.

″I can’t watch,″ Lori Engelhardt said.

It’s back to the tank for Billy. But not for 11 other tropical fish who flapped their fins and swam their hearts out in races at the Hazelwood Presbyterian Church.

Fish racing. That’s right. Not horses. Not dogs. Not even frogs.

It’s an activity practiced by a small group of people knowns as the BeBOPS - or Betta Buffs of Pittsburgh - who thought it would add a little levity to the ordinary business of breeding and showing the common, colorful breed, also known as Siamese fighting fish.

While fortunes are not lost in betting on bettas, some owners turn into sharks as their guppies compete for the coveted winner’s certificate.

On a recent Sunday, six people crowded around a table watching closely as two fish were dropped into 5-foot-long white plastic troughs.

Calls of ″Come on, fishy 3/8″ and ″yes, yes, yes, yes″ rang out.

When some fish lingered before the finish line, owners urged them on by beaming flashlights at them and flapping their hands.

″Hey, Zero, you know what a fish hors d’oeuvre looks like?″ John Williams asked as his fish trailed in a race.

Cool heads prevailed and no one made good on their threats to turn the losers into pate.

The races began last June at an aquarium society picnic and are held every few months.

Some, like young Lori Engelhardt, take the sport seriously. She helped her charges practice by setting up a mock raceway.

When Billy failed to budge, her heart, if not her fish, sank.

″He’s lame,″ she sighed, putting her head on her mother’s shoulder.

But not everyone is hooked.

″It’s a joke,″ said Melissa Migota, 43, whose pets, Nothing and Nothing 2, competed but came nowhere.

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