The Horned Toad Derby

Texas Christian University is one of the great centers of learning in our nation. Nine thousand students have a choice of 98 undergraduate, 21 masters and 11 doctoral degrees. Their Bob Schieffer School of Journalism, named for a 1959 TCU graduate, is rated among the top five, nationwide. TCU's football team, the Horned Frogs, had a 11-2 season last year.

That team mascot is the problem. A Horned Frog ain't a frog. It ain't a toad. It's a lizard, dadgummit! It's a tough old critter that's been around since the Pleistocene Era, about a million years ago. These lizards are classified in the Genus Phrynosama from the Greek "phrynos (toad)" and "soma (body)", but the little six inch dragon is still a lizard, dagnabbit!

There are 14 types, ranging all the way from Arkansas to the Pacific Coast. They are the ugliest and most fearsome looking of all lizards with mottled, scaly skin and protruding horns above the eyes. The camouflage helps them survive in a desert environment. Moreover, four of the l4 have a secret weapon. They can spurt blood from their eyes up to a distance of three feet. Mexicans call them "torito de la Virgen." the Virgin's little bull.

These reptiles emerge from winter hibernation hungry and immediately head for the nearest anthill. Harvester ants are their favorite food. Horned Frogs have been honored by both Texas and Wyoming by being named the state reptile.

The good folks down in Coalinga, California also pay homage to the Horned Frog. Way back in 1933, the Coalinga Chamber of Commerce and the Junior Chamber (JAYCEES) held a joint banquet in the Mineral Springs Hotel. They removed the furniture, drew a 25 foot circle on the dance floor and released several Horned Frogs in the center. The first to reach the outer circle was the derby winner.

The derby went public two years later when Coalinga American Legion Post Number 2 took over and moved the contest outdoors, to the picnic grounds in Warthan Canyon. It was scheduled as a fund raiser for the Boy Scouts. In 1938, NBC broadcast the race for the western states.

Hollywood got involved in 1940. Jim Rau was one of the producers of the 1939 Best Picture Academy Award movie "Gone With The Wind." Naturally, he named his entry after the movie. His frog ran like the wind, winning the race by several lengths. Celebrities like Bob Hope, Rudy Valee and Jerry Colona have also come to cheer their favorite reptile in the annual festival.

The winning trophy went to Corpus Christi, Texas in 1941 but the victor was Coalinga-connected. Don Terry was from Coalinga but training to become a fighter pilot at Corpus Christi Naval Air Station. He named his entry Dive Bomber and the patriotic little toad bombed his rivals.

That was the last time Coalinga hosted the competition until 1946. Coalinga, like the rest of the nation, was fighting to win WWII. The return of the Coalinga Horned Frog Derby was another signal that we had survived four long, bloody years and could return to peaceful pursuits. It has been an annual event since that time, with the exception of 1983.

While the city fathers were making final preparations for the Coalinga Horned Frog Derby, a massive earthquake struck. The tough Horned Toads took it in stride. After all, if you've been around for a million years, you've seen a lot worse, but the cautious humans cancelled.

The derby has grown from a singe race in a ballroom into a four day extravaganza with seven races and thousands of tourists. The Horned Frog has not fared so well. They are close to being listed on the endangered species list.

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