I'm irate. Spewing. Ropeable. Spitting chips. Very very cross.
Today was never going to be a great day: for starters, we finally have a warm, sunny little piece of spring and I had to spend most of it at the surgery doing desperately overdue paperwork. The trip there and back was 90km of warm bitumen, dotted with the first bobtails of the season, emerging to soak up that wonderful long overdue sunlight... where they are squashed into messy little piles of gore that make me a bit sadder every time I pass one.
So I wasn't in a flash mood even after finishing the most desperate of office tasks. But it got a whole lot worse when I checked my email at lunchtime to discover the entry form for the upcoming Albany 3Sheep Trial.
I was quite excited about Albany. The last trial of the year, it's kind of close to home (200km-ish), and it's run with the Albany Show, which is always fun. Last year was the first trial held down there in recent years, an unofficial event as a sort of test run, and we made a big effort to get down there to support the new trial, even though from a farming perspective, November is a less than ideal time for a weekend away.
We were planning on doing the same thing this year, especially since farm stuff is going to prevent us from getting to my other favourite country show trial, Margaret River, next weekend.
But then I read the entry form, and it said this:
"Open will be limited to Open and Improver dogs. Novice dogs may be included by invitation only"
Those of you who had to listen to my critique of the Mayanup Club's recent trial will know that this doesn't make me very happy. So you're all excused- go and get some fresh air. Those of you who aren't interested in WA sheepdog trialling can also find something constructive to get on with. Anyone left is going to get an explanation of why this is a ridiculous and counter-productive restriction. You've been warned.
Right- so the situation is that generally, in our 3sheep trials, there are three classes: Novice, Improver and Open (there's also Encourage for absolute beginners, but that doesn't count).
Novice is for all dogs that haven't won a class. They're called "Novice dogs".
Improver is for all registered dogs that haven't won an Improver or an Open class (so Novice dogs, and any dogs that have won a Novice- "Improver dogs").
Open is open to all registered dogs.
To become an Improver dog, your dog has to win a Novice class. To become an Open dog, your dog has to win an Improver or Open class. Winning isn't easy, and some very very good dogs with top handlers have loitered (and still loiter) in the Novice and Improver classes, even though they've placed and qualified for Open finals regularly.
Recently there seems to have been an issue with excessive entries at trials. Most of our trials run over three days (usually Friday-Sunday), starting with the Novice class and finishing with the Open final. With the "standard" course time of 15 minutes, there's only so many runs that can be held over those three days, even allowing for crosses (which incur instant disqualification and happen fairly often for new Novice dogs). There's also the issue of sheep- sourcing enough suitable sheep can be difficult at the best of times. My own club's trial now runs in March, and this year we managed to fit in 200 runs over the three days, with 700 sheep available- so we just squeezed them all in.
But what does a club do if they are concerned about getting too many entries for their allotted daylight and sheep numbers?
The options that have been tried recently include:
1) Restricting handlers to a set number of runs.
That's what my club have done recently for our Kendenup trial, and while it works well, it isn't overly popular with handlers with lots of dogs. We allow everyone 6 runs over the whole trial, so someone with 2 dogs can enter them in everything, and someone with 6 dogs has to make some tough decisions. People can apply for extra runs "if time allows".
2) Restricting dogs to a set number of runs.
I think Mayanup did this last year- each dog was allowed 2 runs (if eligible), in whichever classes the handler chooses. So for my three dogs, our entries worked out basically the same as for our Kendenup trial- 6 runs total. But someone with 6 dogs can have twice as many runs.
3) Running to a standard.
This method was used at the 2008 States, where they can't restrict entries (States have to be open to all registered dogs, I believe). So with unrestricted entries, the club gambles on being able to fit them all in. If it doesn't look like they're going to manage it, they might choose to start forcing handlers to retire from runs that aren't competitive- ie once they've lost so many points they aren't going to qualify for the final (top 12). Generally this only applies to the Open class, as it's run last. It does penalise the later running dogs more than the early ones, and can be a bit demoralising for relative novices if your dog is working well but not up to the standard.
4) Extra trial days.
As at the States this year, where entries weren't restricted but the trial ran over 4 days. The downsides here are that the organising club needs to have available grounds and sheep for the extra days/runs, and handlers need to get away from farms/jobs for an extra day.
5) Restricting classes- in particular keeping Novice dogs out of Open.
Effectively this limits all eligible dogs to 2 runs each (Novice dogs- N/I, Improver dogs- I/O, Open dogs in Open as per usual), but it doesn't allow the handler any choice about when/where those 2 runs are.
Various clubs have tried different things recently- this year we've had extra days (States), limited runs/handler (Kendenup), and Novice dogs out of Open (Mayanup). I wasn't the only one who didn't like the Restricted Classes idea, and apparently it wasn't particularly effective at keeping entries down, so I wasn't expecting to see it again.
But now Great Southern Club, our neighbours, our mates, have pulled this suckiest of rules out of the rubbish bin where it belongs and plastered it over the trial I was most looking forward to this year. Boo!
Why do I dislike this restriction so intensely, you ask (if you're still awake)?
1) It isn't any more effective at limiting runs than the much fairer option of 2 runs/dog.
2) In fact, Mayanup apparently found it less effective, because people were more likely to enter extra young dogs in Novice to make their time at the trial more worthwhile.
3) It doesn't allow handlers any flexibility regarding the days they can attend- if someone has only Novice dogs and works weekdays or has kids at school and can't make the trial on the Friday, they will get one Improver run per dog, as long as they don't draw early in the Improver and have to miss their only run on Friday afternoon.
5) It means that people with Novice dogs will finish all their runs on the Saturday, and then have the choice of sitting around twiddling their thumbs on the Sunday to see the Open final, or going home a day early. Yes, they could volunteer to work at the let-out all day, but chances are they won't. Especially if they don't feel the club are supportive of Novice handlers.
6) The Open isn't really Open, is it? It's more of a "Restricted" class, and in my opinion shouldn't be eligible for Dog of the Year points. There are a number of excellent and competitive Novice dogs, dogs that routinely place in Open finals, and removing them from the Open competition just reduces the competition. Dogs like Ivan Solomon's Beck, Wayne Hall's Wal, R's Fred, Marianne's Bernie all spring to mind. In fact the Open Final at this year's State Championships was won by an excellent Novice dog, Andrew Gorton's Boylee Ella, and at least 4 of the 12 finalists were Novices.
Are there any advantages to this method of entry restriction? The only one I can think of is the sparing of Open handler egos from the frustrating situation of being beaten to a Finals place by a Novice dog. Otherwise, I can't appreciate any benefits above the much fairer alternative of 2 runs/dog.
It could be argued that exhibition type trials with a large public audience, like those held at shows, should aim to showcase the top dogs only on the days when the public are in attendence- but this doesn't apply to Albany, where the public show runs on both Saturday and Sunday, so Novice dogs will be seen running in the Improver. And as mentioned above, there are enough Novice dogs of a competitive standard. Allowing handlers to select their own restricted runs generally encourages them to run their more Novice dogs only in the lower classes, and save their best dogs for Open.
In addition, this trial is run at a difficult time of the year for most farmers, and I'd be surprised if it was hugely over-subscribed. If the Novice entries are reduced significantly, I expect that the Open class will be relatively small and that's even less opportunity to showcase the sport.
On a personal level, we had to decide how to organise this very busy time of the year, and it came down to a decision between attending either Margaret River or Albany. We made a big effort to support the Albany trial last year when it wasn't point scoring, and decided to do the same this year. And now I really regret it.
If we are just about to start shearing (quite probable), and can only make it for two days, we'll have the choice of going Friday/Saturday, so R can only run young dogs and I'll only get one run with Queani, or going Saturday/Sunday and only getting one run with Novice dogs, two for Queani and then having Fred in the Open. Even if we could make it to all three days, we'd have all the Novices on Fri/Sat, then have to stay Sunday for just Queani and Fred in the Open and the opportunity to find out who wins the Open final.
We'll probably enter this year, given that we've passed up the chance to do Margaret River instead, and because we won't know when we'll be there and might well only make it for 2 days, we'll try to make the effort worthwhile by entering everyone in the Novice. So Pinky's working holiday can wait until next year, Muddy can have a run and R will probably enter 3 or 4 youngsters to compensate for probably missing Sunday and the chance to run Fred in Open. We'll be flat out with all those Novices on Fri/Sat, won't get the chance to do much letting out or anything (pity, because I enjoy it), will have to scratch Fred/Queani from the Open and take off home on Saturday, completely knackered. And won't come back in 2010, when we'll have 2 kids and no Fred in Open so it will be even less worthwhile.
Great Southern Club, I'm profoundly disappointed.
And now because I need some things that make me smile:
BabyJ, Jim and the Boss:
It's taken me two and a half years, but I've got him washing up:
Feel better now.