Yu Yuguang’s heart beats faster every time he stands on his roof, eyes trained to the sky waiting for one of his pigeons to pass through the trap door of its home loft. “Those are the most intense and enjoyable moments of a pigeon race,” the 57-year-old said, adding that the sport was like playing the lottery. Yu has been lucky. “Little Ancestor”, his seven-month-old pigeon, came first in a recent Chinese Racing Pigeon Association race, beating more than 4,800 other birds and completing a journey of just over 1,000km (620 miles) from Langfang, near the Chinese capital Beijing, to Shanghai in a record time of 16 hours, 24 minutes and 54 seconds. The 5,000 yuan (US$765) prize money, however, pales in comparison to the 200,000 yuan Yu spends on his 500 pigeons each year. In China, where pigeon racing has a long history, economic development has allowed the sport to spread beyond the ultra-wealthy. Membership of the Chinese Pigeon Association has jumped from tens of thousands in the 1980s to about 400,000, according to its vice-president, Huang Jian. By comparison Belgium, the traditional heartland of the sport, has about 20,000 pigeon fanciers. That said, most of the huge sums that go into the sport are from deep-pocketed top-tier enthusiasts, eager to get their hands on coveted blood lines. In November, a Chinese collector made headlines when he paid € 1.6 million (US$1.9 million) for a racing pigeon at an auction in Belgium – the latest in a string of eye-catching bids by Chinese fanciers that have driven up prices. Some Chinese breeders are also willing to bid heavily on their own birds at auctions to increase their market value. A Hangzhou-based breeder, who gave his name as Ying, travelled to Beijing last month for an auction, buying back six of his own pigeons which had placed well in races. Ying, who bought them at prices ranging from 15,000 to 50,000 yuan, did not think twice about the cash he spent. “I’m so in love with pigeons. I love them so much. In my heart, pigeons come first and my wife and children second,” he said.