Ripping Through the Competition
Posted on December 04, 2003 by Steve Bowman
In south Louisiana they call it Lagniappe. In Cajun-speak, it means "just a little bit extra."
After the first day of qualifying in the Super Retriever Series presented by Natural Life Pet Products, many of the retriever/handler teams feel like that "little bit extra" was way too much.
The legendary field trial grounds of Bonnet Carre Spillway served up a whole lot of extra twists and turns on the 63-retriever field, forcing some of the top handlers in the country to go down in a legendary ball of flame, kind of like the first piece of sausage in a bowl of gumbo, hot and hard.
At the top of the race, though, is Alex Washburn, working on her own legendary status. Washburn is the 2002 ESPN Great Outdoor Games gold medalist and the 2003 silver medalist. Those medals, though, were won with Ticket. This time Washburn is leading the pack with black Labrador, Ripper.
The lab tore through the course racking up a dismal 4 points. While other top handlers, like Jerry Day (2001 Great Outdoor gold medalist) barely slipped into the quarterfinals and Chris Akin (2003 gold medalist) finished last with his top dog, Jack, after the retriever picked up a "poison" bird out of order.
Akin, though, managed to make the quarterfinals with Star a 4-year black Labrador. But he may have a tough time making up any ground. Way ahead of him is Bill Morgan of St. Francisville, La. who is tied for second with himself. Morgan and Labradors, Katie and Susie, scored an impressive six points with each of the retrievers. They are followed by Ronnie Lee and Jolt of St. Amant, La. in fourth with 10 points.
Morgan and Lee are both locals who spend their summers training at the Spillway, giving them an advantage that much of the field didn't have.
With many of the top dogs struggling and those dogs faring so well, the tone for this competition may have already been set.
"The legend of the spillway is for real," said Justin Tackett, organizer of the Super Retriever Series. "It's been doing this to dogs for 20 years. It's so deceiving, it'll take a 150 yard mark and turn it into a 580 yard blind retrieve."
The way it does that is the grounds stretching almost a mile wide and miles deeper is pock marked with dips and turns, pockets of water and rough terrain that to the casual eye looks like ground as flat as a football field.
"You just can't see all the stuff that is there," Tackett said, pointing to the first mark of the trial that landed 150 yards away in a pool of water that could not be seen from the handler's line.
Those little unseen undulations made it hard on retrievers to keep a straight line and forced handlers to blow more whistles than they would have ever dreamed. At times it looked as if dogs running across seemingly flat ground were bouncing through the course like a skier bouncing over moguls on a ski slope, hopping and skipping from bump to bump.
Washburn credited the lead to Ripper having seen the first mark of the test really well.
"She was on it," Washburn said. "And we never had a problem after that."
Except for the two whistles needed to put Ripper on the blind retrieve.
The test boiled down to that mark and a blind retrieve, with a twist or two thrown in. The test started with the initial mark being thrown at about 150 yards from the line and landing in an unseen pool of water. Immediately following that, a short breaking bird was shot in front of the line and forced to skip across water just 15 feet from the dog's nose. Very few dogs had trouble with the breaking bird, which was picked up first. But the mark was another thing.
"The depth perception just killed a lot of dogs," Washburn said.
Some of the teams racked up points, while others fared well.
Once those birds were picked up, the handler re-set his retriever, firing a shotgun at another mark thrown to the right of the line. This mark was a poison bird, and the dogs had to first pick up the blind retrieve, sitting another 150 yards past the mark.
"It was a good test that put a lot of burden on the dog to mark the bird," Washburn said. "And the blind was a handler's blind, forcing the handlers to be really keep a tight line."
The line to the blind carried the dogs on a parallel course with a ditch. On the left side of the ditch was thick grass that if the dog carried just a few steps to far could quickly get out of sight of the handler. And to the right was the mark to start and heavy cover on the final leg of the retrieve. At some point, the handlers had to push their dogs across the ditch from right to left and be ready to not lose their dogs on the left side if it didn't take a tight cast.
"It doesn't look that big," Washburn said. "But there are a lot of really good dogs that had trouble."
The final 28 dogs will compete Friday for a spot in the 12-dog semifinal round that is slated to be televised on ESPN. The competition will begin at approximately 8 a.m. at the Bonnet Carre Spillway.
The Spillway was built and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and is the southernmost floodway in the line of defense against Mississippi River floods. It has been opened just eight times since 1931 to protect New Orleans, allowing the 8,000-acre spillway to be developed into a heavily used recreation area. A quarter million visitors a year enjoy it for fishing, hunting, off-road vehicle use, camping and dog training.