When we spotted the front-runner, it was floating past a string of shit-caked fountains and picking up speed. Hey, we wondered, whose name is on that little speed demon!
But then our companions pointed out that the object bobbing through the icky tar of ooze known as Brush Creek was, in fact, a dead rat, not a rubber ducky.
Still, we couldn't help rooting for the bloated little bugger. Despite the noticeable handicap of being deceased, the gargantuan rodent was nimbly navigating rough waters, dodging patches of walnuts floating in a bubbling, scat-colored brew.
But we were still a couple of blocks east of the actual race, so we figured Ben would be disqualified for getting a head start or something.
Besides, a lowly specimen of rattus norvegicus -- dead or alive -- had no chance competing against the professional rodents who appeared to be running the actual charity event.
The dumping of thousands of rubber ducks into the Brush Creek effluent raises money for a couple of local organizations, Synergy Services Inc. and the Mattie Rhodes Center, that operate shelters for the victims of domestic violence and child abuse. But besides the feel-good aura, plenty of folks who purchase the little floaters are motivated by the slick come-on the organizers themselves characterize as "se-Duck-tive." That is, a "chance at winning a million bucks!"
No one snared the million (the owners of the fastest duck, Libby and Allen Blair, get to drive a Mini Cooper for a year), which got us to wonderin' -- what were the chances that Citigroup, which sponsors the event, actually would fork over the jackpot?
The Strip looked in vain for a calculation of odds in the event's online literature. But after some probing, we learned that the million-dollar prize is awarded only if a "golden" duck happens to be chosen as the winner instead of one of the regular ducks. How many golden ducks were in the race?
Prerace ads boasted that 30,000 little bobbers would hit the water, but Synergy tells the Strip that only 15,000 ended up being launched. Of those, only four were designated ahead of time as "golden" quackers.
Hmmm. That means Citigroup's chances of having to hand over the big prize were 1 in 3,750. Not a bad risk. Given those odds, if the Duck Derby is held just once a year, Citigroup can expect to shell out a million smackers about once every 3,750 years, or right about on schedule for the next ice age.
Having thus figured out Citigroup's low liability, we turned to calculating what odds your typical charitable giver has of winning a comfortable retirement. After all, some might be forgiven if they thought they faced only 15,000-to-1 odds of winning a million bucks -- far better odds than winning a state lottery, for example.
But this is how it actually works: When you buy a single plastic ducky for $5, it has only 1 chance in 3,750 to be a golden duck, which in turn has only a 1-in-15,000 chance of being declared the winner, making the odds against your bird winning you the million-dollar prize ...
56 MILLION TO 1. Whew! That's crummy even by lottery standards.
But those, it turns out, were still far better odds than what hundreds of people actually faced on October 19. See, when someone adopts a duck, a sticky label is applied to the plastic bathtub toy so that the winner of the race can be identified.
Imagine the dismay many people felt when, after the race began, they looked down and saw hundreds of the little labels floating to the riverbank.
Staci Lynn, whose eleven-year-old daughter had raised $25 to purchase a "six-quack" of ducks, says the girl turned to her, pointed to the labels and said, "How is someone's duck supposed to win if it has no number?"
Lynn is no spoilsport. She knows that the purpose of the event is to raise money for charity. But she pointed out that her daughter had selflessly asked how others were going to win if the labels didn't stay on.
"It's a big case of fraud," Lynn says.
Five days after the event, the Strip took another stroll down by the river.
No sign of the rat. But the riverbank was littered with white labels as far as the eye could see.
Speaking of things
that stink ...
Nothing gets the Strip in the mood for its favorite holiday -- Halloween -- like all the billboards that sprout up around town this time of year advertising professional haunted houses.
The roadside ads make this cutlet shiver like a frozen hamburger patty at the very thought of going inside The Beast, The Main Street Morgue or The Edge of Hell.
But the Strip got its iciest case of the chills when it spotted the haunted house ad on the side of southbound I-35 near Liberty Drive featuring the familiar chalk outline of a murder scene, complete with a pool of blood and a banner across the top reading "Suicide -- Homicide -- Death Cleaning."
Turns out the scary ad isn't for a haunted house at all but for Don McNulty, the one-man crew behind Bio-Cleaning Services.
Last time we checked in with Don, for a 1997 cover story, the man who cleans up and disinfects the goo left behind at murder and suicide scenes for a living was humbly keeping a low profile; he seemed almost apologetic for what he got paid to do. Back then, he said he'd fallen into the job because -- surprise! -- no one else really wanted to do it. People were shocked, he said, to find out that if a family member offed himself and got pieces of himself all over the living room furniture, no government agency would come to remove all the bits of bone, blood and gore. Out of compassion for the families who didn't know where else to turn, Don, with a background in cleaning up at hospitals, began to fill that role around town.
Six years later, Don's no longer struggling to make ends meet while he soaks up jellied remains in mattresses and shag carpeting. Now pullin' in six figures, he's feeling a lot more jazzed about his job.
Ditching his older, more subtle pitch ("care, concern and peace of mind"), McNulty chose the creepy ad knowing that it would upset some folks -- but also aware that it would grab a hell of a lot more attention from drivers zooming by at 70 miles per hour.
McNulty says he's getting more positive calls than negative, but the angry ones stand out. He says one guy told him, "I just saw your sign downtown, and I didn't know whether to be offended by it or whether it's just weird. I guess that if I went home to my suicidal wife, I would be happy to know your company exists."
McNulty says, "It was the strangest phone call I ever received."