Monday, May 19, 2008

Bluegrass Report, Part 1

I'll break this up since i know it's going to get long. Part 1 will be a general report, Part 2 will be on my own trip and dogs and such.

The Bluegrass Classic SDT is an amazing feat of organization. Just compare it to the USBCHA National Finals. The Finals is put on by a national organization, with large financial backing from that organization ($2 of every Open and Nursery run at any sanctioned trial all year goes to the HA, and most of this goes to putting on the sheep and cattle Finals), as well as a very large donation from the ABCA (over $10,000 in 2007), targeted specifically towards putting on the Finals trials (Open and Nursery). During the Finals, 150 Open dogs run in the preliminary round (after paying a $200 entry fee), with 40 returning for a second run, and then 17 taking part in the double lift final round. Generally, about 60 Nursery dogs (2 runs each) are run as well. Total runs is about 330, give or take a few Nursery dogs. Now look at the sheer volume of dogs run at the Bluegrass - 134 Open dogs with 2 full runs ($150 entry fee covers both runs, a bargain!), a top 20 double lift final round, and over 400 (yes, 400!) runs in the novice and nursery classes. Total is nearly 700 runs in 5 days. And all of this without the huge financial backing the HA Finals receives. It's an amazing feat, just amazing.

And what a treasure this trial is for those of us lucky enough to attend. No detail is overlooked. The wool sheep were trucked in from Texas and were lambs born this past January, mostly black faced or mixes, and weighed in probably from 80-100 pounds. All 134 dogs run in the first round ran on fresh, undogged sheep. What a treat! The outrun is about 375-400 yards i believe (i'm terrible at distances). Many dogs came to grief just trying to get the run started - those lambs had to learn about dogs in a hurry and they weren't always happy about it. They'd run, split, double back, all kinds of challenges for the dogs at the lift. It's tremendous fun watching the sheep get dogbroke right there on the field. Shedding proved to be very difficult in many cases, with lots of teams timing out in the shedding ring and many dogs getting fed up and gripping there as well. Getting the sheep to go around the handler's post was another challenge because the sheep were so touchy. It was interesting to see the lambs drawn to the spectator tents near the handler's post. There was a short fence in front of the tents and many groups of sheep would get right up on the fence (or even try to go over), again leading to frustrated dogs using their teeth and being disqualified. I heard one competitor theorize that perhaps the sheep spent a good bit of time under shelter and maybe were drawn to the tents because of it. I felt the sheep were pretty even at the trial, and the difference between groups was mostly explained by weather conditions or time of day, things that can't be controlled. There were definitely some times to run that were much better or much worse than others but it's always going to be that way at a trial with so many entries. The sheep themselves were healthy and uniform. Set out was from horse back and 2 judges judged each round, with all 4 judges serving for the Top 20 Final.

As i said, no detail is overlooked. On the Open field, preliminary scores are posted immediately after each run, on a big scoreboard that also has a timer counting down for each run. The class scoreboard is updated with points breakdowns as well, just as soon as math is checked. A leader board is kept up to date each day. There are 2 large tents to sit under, with coffee and breakfast items every morning. The judges sit in nice comfortable horse trailers, away from watchful eyes and out of the weather. The famous "white house" ( a little white shed built on a trailer) sits just behind the post and is manned all day long, ready for any little thing that pops up - running orders, entry stuff, any kind of question, and all of the million administrative things that pop up with such a large undertaking. Both fields post and maintain a running order for the other field, checking off teams after they've run, so handlers can keep up to date and be where they need to be at the right time. The Bluegrass folks even have water and sewage service come in for the folks in RVs and trailers. There are a few vendors (the sock lady is a big hit every year) and an ongoing raffle each day. Official hats, t-shirts, etc are available as well.

The weather was kind of lousy this year, unfortunately. I guess it could have been worse, if it had been colder or had rained every single day - we had a few hours of sun once or twice. I think everyone ended up pretty water-logged. I know i had 4 pairs of wet shoes to dry out when the sun finally came out (the day after i got home!). But that's the way it is in Kentucky in May. It could be cold, wet, hot, you just never know until you get there. The Bluegrass gang is made up of real troopers and they just kept on trucking.

It was a lot of fun to watch the dogs trying to sort out the sheep (and the sheep sort out the dogs!). I have to mention 2 things that really stood out for me this year. One i didn't even actually see myself but i have to mention it because it was such a "good sport" sort of thing. Jennifer Maginnis had a beautiful run going with her Bay dog in the first round, having lost very few points around the course, definitely a top scoring run. On the shed, while she and her dog were holding the single, one of the other sheep decided to go over the fence, through no fault of dog or handler, resulting in a DQ. Afterwards, i heard that Jennifer was a really good sport about it, commenting something like "oh well, that's dog trialing", where many of us would have been crying the blues (or worse). That was Noteworthy thing #1. Noteworthy thing #2 was Tommy Wilson's run with his Sly in the second round. I didn't see his run in the first round unfortunately (heard it was gorgeous), because that second run will be etched in my brain for a long, long time and i'd have loved another one there. Tommy and Sly are an amazing team and seem to get stronger and stronger all the time. I remember the day in Sturgis at the 2003 Finals when Tommy bought her - i happened to be at the practice field when he was taking a look at her. I think she was about 10 months old maybe. But back to saturday's run. Sly ran out very well and just folded those sheep off the top end, with a little move here, a little move there, and fetched them the same way. A little jig here, a little jag there. All in a nearly straight line. What blew me away was watching Tommy during all of this. Here most of us out there are whistling and yelling and just working so hard to keep things nice and neat, constantly in contact of some sort with our dogs. And Tommy's just sort of standing there, letting Sly do the job. He blew a couple of whistles at the beginning of the fetch, and helped a tiny bit around the fetch gates, but the entire second half of the fetch, his hands were on his hips (he finger whistles) and he let Sly do her thing. I'd think "Oh, i'd give a come bye" and there was Sly tucking the sheep in on the right. "Oh i'd blow an away" and there was Sly on the left. It was a real lesson in NOT micro-managing a dog. The drive was very pretty and the shed picture perfect. All in all, it was incredibly inspiring. I'm sure there were lots of other noteworthy things but those are the 2 that are sticking out in my travel-fogged brain at the moment.

It's really a wonderful trial and all of the folks who work so hard to put it on deserve a huge thanks. Kudos to you all!

Next up, the good, bad and the ugly - the Shoofly dogs' Bluegrass week!


Laura said...

Wow, your description of the Bluegrass gave me goosebumps, Robin. It sounds like an amazing trial, and one day I really hope to go (or maybe even run in!).

Also, I'm a bit late on this, but I wanted to say that I loved hearing about the handling decisions you made while running your dogs at the Shaker Village trial (e.g., sacrificing the panels so you didn't risk overly stressing your young dog the first time out)--and offer congratulations on Moss's great runs :-)

Carson said...

Your ability to put on paper such a vivid description of this event is a gift that only a few folks have. Ever thought about writing a book? :)

Welcome home! I can’t wait to read more about your trip and how your dogs did.


NRhodes said...

Hi Robin, the Bluegrass this year was the first sheepdog field trial I've attended, and I was really surprised at all the yelling and whistling (micro-managing, like you said) I saw during people's runs. Unfortunately I missed out on seeing Tommy Wilson's run. I'd have liked to have seen a run where the dog got to do some thinking for itself.

Robin French said...

Hey - I don't think i'd say the dogs weren't thinking for themselves. You can't work sheep like that with a dog that isn't shouldering a large part of the burden. Tommy's quiet run was a joy though, such beautiful partnership there.

Rachel said...

Great description of the field and trial - made me feel like I was there.

Can't wait to read Part 2.