|Exhaust sheep? What exhaust sheep?|
Zamora - Open 1
I have made the trip many times to Zamora, and because it poses challenges like nowhere else, it is one of my favorite dog trials. The seemingly endless hills that we run on appear out of nowhere and jut out sharply from the otherwise flat, agricultural expanse of the Sacramento Delta Region. One minute you are sailing down I-5, the next you are a few miles away on a winding, 2-lane road looking for the old red barns at the base of the trial field. It was windy and cold when I arrived Thursday night, with just enough daylight to air out the dogs and remember why I love the place.
Friday morning dawned cloudy and oh-so-cold. The weather man said 30% chance of rain, so the fog caught me off guard. At the trial field, we were unable to see even the post from the nearby parking area, and the trial was delayed by hours. As a result, the shed was eliminated leaving us a 90 point course, and 9 minutes to run instead of 11. With more than 80 dogs to compete over a day and a half in open #1, something had to go. I applaud the organizers for not running to a standard, or shortening the course, neither the outrun or the drive. It is why we come to Zamora after all, and the gather remained somewhere in the neighborhood of 550 yards with a 200 yard drive. Standing there on soggy ground, in inclement weather staring at that huge hill, the thought occurred to me that it might be a bit much for little Starman. And that was before I found out we were running on only 3 head of yearlings. Oh my! What the weatherman should have said was 30% chance of rain all day, because it began shortly after the fog lifted and did not stop.
The post was an elevated platform welded up by a handler, and named after long-time Border Collie supporter, Guido Lombardi, who just happens to be last year's inductee into the ABCA Hall of Fame. The Lombardi Tower was placed below a rushing stream which had to be crossed by the dogs running out, and after the drive, by dogs and sheep to get to the pen. The drive ended, and drive points awarded at the uphill creek bank on the way back. Very few made it that far, and they were the ones that won the day with scores in the low 60s. After a day and a half of running all those dogs, no one had gotten a pen, with most either getting lost on the outrun, or like me with both dogs, timing out around the drive.
I wasn't worried about Star's run, or the least bit nervous, because I looked at it as a training run, with absolutely no expectation of anything. Honestly, I was thrilled just to see him start in the correct direction and head uphill. He is such a marvelous spotter of sheep, even as far as they were set, I knew he had seen them, so I figured; "what the hell." Not only is the hill steep vertically, but it undulates greatly horizontally as the dogs run up. Almost from the minute you send them, they lose sight of their sheep. Because the dogs must travel up and down as well as out and around, I have no reason to believe that they can see their sheep again until they top out on the last rise just before the set out. If they cross over the highest ridgeline too soon, they won't see sheep again until they come around at the top, if then, and many overshot, crossed their course looking, came on flat and tight, or just plain got lost. There were a few that made a big circle to finish back at their handler's feet. It is a long walk up that hill to find your dog when there is no telling where they might have gone.
|Fetch on a String|
If your dog runs tight, you run the risk of them being sucked down into the gully by the terrain, and cross their course. At Zamora, that is quite common. What is uncommon is the 20 point outrun, which may have been accomplished by a few. Maybe not. Re-direct whistles were heard repeatedly throughout the weekend. Star ran perfectly, starting up and angling nicely. He dropped over the first hill, reappeared on the next running just below the ridgeline of the farthest hill. After another up and down, he was still right on the ridge, and I was starting to feel lucky...I mean hopeful. Then he dropped over and was lost to me. All I could hope was that the fence would turn him, and he would reappear behind his sheep. I waited...then I waited some more losing precious time off a short clock. I blew "walk-up." Nothing. More "walk-up" then his name. Calling his name again, I blew a recall just before he flew out from about 11 o'clock, and presumably the set out pen, onto his sheep. I could see he was sizing things up, so I encouraged with a whistle to shift sheep that were set on hay. After an instant's hesitation, he had them and down they came.
It was rainy, windy and cold, and the yearlings tried the dog every which way but loose with Star taking every whistle as if on rails, first coming on then giving ground, trying to discover where to be and how to handle sheep that were completely unfamiliar to him. It was a young dog's fetch winning a few stand-offs, losing ground to the hills and time to the clock. A cone across the creek from the post designated the turn into the drive. Beaten by the sheep to that point, Star had to unwind about half way around the cone, but had his sheep settled beautifully thereafter. The turn was wide, but the first drive leg was relatively steady. Panel made, tight turn on precise response to my whistles, and I was really starting to like my dog. There is no part of this course that is level, but the cross-drive is somewhat flat and the sheep seem content to toddle across in full view of the hand when given sufficient personal space. If they run, you will lose them, they will split, they will disappear, they will dive into the creek where they will lie down and give up. All was lost to the dogs that lacked patience. Star flanked cleanly, but slowly, and it took a bit of doing to get them across. Another panel made, another tight turn, and we were home free...except for the clock.
|One down, one to go|
2010 National Champion, Patrick Shannahan was judging from inside an old rusty pickup, and I heard the door creak before I heard Patrick call time with Star about 20 feet short of his drive points. I hollered "NO!" and spat out my whistle, because I knew that Star's work had been good enough to place in the points if we completed our drive. We scored 31 points for the outrun, lift, and fetch with up to 30 more lost to the drive. I gave up the sheep to the exhaust dog, then trotted past Patrick's window, banging and said "that was my nursery dog!" It's supposed to be fun to run a dog, right? Yes...yes it is, and I have not had that much fun running a dog in years and years. Our run flowed smoothly, and it felt really good.
Zamora - Open II
The forecast for Saturday was cloudy with some showers, which was fairly accurate. I stopped at the Exxon station on my way in for a Mocha Coffee in a tall cup, and was glad for my layers upon layers of clothing, because it was cold with a bit of a breeze. There were a few dogs to run from the first day, then another 20 or so to finish up Open I before Open II could begin. Both my dogs had run Friday, with Star up around 24th in the afternoon on Saturday, and Mirk idle until Sunday, mid-day. I was hoping for clear skies during our run, and got them. Before the 2nd open, it was decided to move the post beyond the creek, eliminate the pen, and include a single leaving the time at 9 minutes. With everything moved to the far side of the even more rain-swollen creek to save time, the only thing that had to cross were the hands for the meeting and the hands and dogs for the running. It was a great decision, made up a lot of lost time, and worked well for everyone from judge to exhaust.
|A long way across|
Star is a calm sort of dog. He doesn't get his tail in a ringer before his run, and happily played beside the creek with random stops to look up the field when sheep were being set and fetched. I had told a friend that the good dogs would remember the way on the outrun, reflecting later that my statement may come back to haunt me. I had a good feeling about it on my way to the post, having made things easier by again refusing to have any expectations for my dog. I set him up near me, and sent him with a shush, figuring that the word "away" might start him too wide. He was off on a perfect path, neither too wide nor too tight, and it only got better as he ascended the hill. Running hard, Star Crossed over the first hill, and reappeared on the next just below the ridgeline traveling parallel to it. I had the thought that if he stayed on that path, he would be absolutely perfect, and that is just what he did. The outrun was now about 500 yards from hand to sheep, but much farther by the dog's route. It takes a long time for the dog to get to the top on an outrun like that, so I had plenty of time to watch Star run and run and run. Knowing he was on a perfect path removed all concern, and I simply stood there feeling nothing but pure enjoyment. Star is a good dog. He knew the way.
He flew around at the top, nicely off his sheep, overflanking to about the same spot from which he appeared the day before. I knew where the set out was, and knew that he was not lost, but covering the draw, which was proven absolutely when the sheep lifted smartly, quiet and straight as an arrow right at me. I never saw the breakdown of scores, but think it is possible that Star had no points off on the outrun or the lift. It was that pretty. Soft, soft whistles on the fetch brought wide, sweeping, open flanks that the sheep just loved, and there was no hesitation from Star at any point. He had schooled up on Friday, and looked like he knew what he was doing on Saturday. About mid-fetch, the sheep tried him uphill with intention and speed, causing Star to fall behind and lose the fetch line for an instant. A series of hurry-up flank whistles together with "here, here," put the sheep right back on line, then another bobble on the other side. A bit off line approaching the post made the sheep disappear behind a hill for a bit. All I could see were the tops of their ears and my dog disappearing to cover. Again, I said "here, here," to bring him in tighter, and everybody showed up for a turn at the post that was just wide. With things well in hand, and the sheep settling nicely, we began the drive.
|Setting up the single|
Unless you have seen Star work, you cannot appreciate how precise he is when I tell you that he took every whistle precisely. Not only is he immediately responsive, but he will bend, speed up, or slow down a flank, and he will stop exactly where I need him to. For these reasons and more, he is a driving machine, and this was no exception. Sheep love Star, he does not scare them, and they move off him like water in front of your hand on a swoosh. I can bend him, start him and stop him, or even reverse him mid-stride wherever necessary to hold the line exactly. Just about however the sheep jog in front of a panel, he can save it and is so happy to do so. He does not get rattled like some dogs do when you literally throw them a curve. The drive away uneventful, the turn tight and crisp. All the way along the cross drive, the sheep ambled quietly toward the panel, and Star moved easily behind watching intently every move they made. Another tight turn, and they were headed towards me walking easily.
It was determined that hands could leave the post after making or breaking the plane of the cross-drive panel. The shed was a single, and there was no pen. The ring was imagined between the cross-drive panel and the post, and the ground there was flat but sloping. Sheep love to run a hill. Either up or down, doesn't matter to them, just so long as they run. That fact made the single a bit tricky, but Star knew his job, stayed calm on his feet, just like I have taught him at home. With only 3 head of yearlings, we had to work a bit to get a gap. I lined the sheep out away from the exhaust hoping the slight draw would cause one to turn from the others, then commit making Star's job as easy as I could make it. Patrick allowed us any single, be it head or tail, and I was confident that Star would be up to either task. He did not dissappoint. The hole appeared quickly and I called Star through. To be honest, I didn't see him come through, because I was watching my sheep and poised to give a flank if necessary to help him hold her. It was simply not necessary. He must have flown through, because upon my "shu, shu, watch her," he materialized instantly from behind me, creeping forward with all eyes on the prize. It was a solid single.
On 77 points, Star and I placed 2nd behind Geri Byrne and Jim with a stellar run and 81 points. Another dog had tied our score, but my dog won the tie based on his Outrun, lift and fetch points. The breakdown looked like this: Outrun - 0, Lift - 0, Fetch - 5, Drive - 7, Single - 1
Mirk deserves honorable mention. He was one of the unfortunates that did not finish his drive in the first go-round. In fairness, he was the last dog to run on Friday, and the light was fading fast. It was cold, raining, getting dark, and I hustled a dog that should never be handled that way. After getting lost on the outrun, the results of the hurry-up offense were dismal, and I left the trial field frustrated with my dog. Sunday was by far the best day of the trial weather-wise. It dawned clear and cold without a cloud in sight. We were all just so happy to see the sun, no one complained about the cold. Mirk ran mid-day in open II, and things warmed up to the extent that lawn chairs had sprung up all over the place. Again Mirk struggled on the outrun, with a friend later claiming she had 13 points off that phase alone. From the lift on, however, the dog ran like buttah, taking every whistle, using his abundant power sparingly to finish with a spectacular single that will stay with me a while. On 74 points out of 90, Mirk lost a 3-way tie to finish in 8th place, and just like that, I had both dogs in the top 10.
The pictures on this page were taken by dear friend, Larry Klingman, who together with his beautiful wife, Joella, made the trip to Zamora simply to serve as talisman and woman and bring me luck with loads of laughter. Thank you very much you two.