There can only be one winner
One of the pitfalls of aiming high is that it's a long way to fall if you don't succeed. The very antithesis of the euphoria and glory of winning; in a sport as competitive as field trialling heartbreak is a far more likely outcome.
Field trialling is a team effort, but unlike most team sports there is very little margin for error. The odd knock-on in rugby, offside in football or no ball in cricket is unlikely to lead to a sending off. In competitive gundog trialling however, the smallest mistake can mean an immediate red card, no matter how impressive you might have been up until that point. It seems the old adage is true; you are only as good as your last retrieve, and when you're competing at the highest level, that can be a bitter pill to swallow.
The IGL Retriever Championship is the culmination of the open qualifying retriever field trial calendar, and over the course of three days, the best dog and handler pairings in the country go head-to-head until an overall winner is established. The pressure on handlers is enormous, particularly as they progress in the competition. As a result, the four judges have an incredibly difficult job to do as they are forced to eliminate dogs good enough to win any other competition in the country. With the fate of each contestant in their hands, every decision they make is a crucial one.
After lunch on the second day of the 2011 championship at Nevill Holt Estate in Leicestershire, the judges were forced to make one such decision. A winged partridge had run about 200m and appeared to go into some cover at the edge of a wood. In turn, Yettolley Inca of Hatchfield and Fernshot Optimist of Driftaway handled by Di Harrison and Samantha Rowe respectively were sent into the wood to attempt the retrieve. Neither handler had seen where the bird had gone, and after both dogs were unsuccessful the judges made their way over to edge of the cover.
Whilst they were discussing what to do next, former champion handler John Halsted, who still had two dogs in contention, was overheard saying under his breath: “It wouldn't surprise me if that bird didn't enter the cover at all, and is sat tucked in on the edge somewhere.” Almost simultaneously, one of the judges spotted the bird, which had done just that. In the end, after much deliberation, the judges decided to keep both dogs in the competition; a decision that turned out to be the right one - Fernshot Optimist ended up staying the duration of the championship, taking third place overall. The sense of relief on both handlers' faces was almost palpable. “That was one of the most difficult judging decisions I've ever had to make”, said judge Alan Rountree as he rejoined the line for the next retrieve.
At the start of the third and final day, the judges were left with 16 outstanding pairings that hadn't put a foot wrong over the previous two days. Each dog had made numerous excellent retrieves, displaying all of the skills required to stay in a competition at such a high level. And yet, by lunchtime, another nine of these competitors would have had their hopes dashed.
And there's no question about it, Lady Luck plays her part too. One pairing that had been exceptional throughout was eliminated on the final day after failing to make a retrieve of a winged partridge, which, unbeknown to either the judges or the handler, had immediately run across a track and into a field of tall cover crop. Despite doing everything asked of it, the golden retriever simply could not locate the bird in the thick cover. And after a second dog also failed to make the retrieve, the judges themselves walked in. But as stipulated in the rules, the first dog had had its chance and was duly eliminated from the competition. The handler's tears of bitter disappointment seemed wholly justified, for up until that point, everything had been going so well. It could so easily have gone the other way.
And no doubt, this aspect weighs heavily with the judges who already have a remarkably tough job. In certain trials there will be standout dogs that don't so much have to win the championship, but avoid losing it. This year however, by the latter stages it was anyone's game, and there was very much the feeling amongst spectators that any of the nine pairings still in contention in the penultimate round could walk away with the trophy.
As it happened, two pairings, Lady Celina Carter's F.T.CH. Emmanygan Rocket of Chatsworth handled by John Halsted and F.T.CH Adoraden Izzy of Greenbriar owned and handled by Carol Clarke, both considered by the gallery to be real challengers, were knocked out of contention after failing to make a very testing retrieve. The bird fell into some thick cover over the brow of a hill, and with their dogs out of sight, directing them to the spot proved an impossible task for both handlers. Having come so far, it must have been brutally disappointing for them. But, because they had been such exceptional contestants, they were sent through to the final round to contest for merits rather than medals. From an initial field of 51 qualified entries, this left seven pairings in the challenge for first place.
After almost three days of retrieving walked-up birds, the judges decided that the final round would be a drive. Dogs, handlers and judges were positioned to the left-hand-side of the Guns and observed carefully as the drive commenced. The team of Guns, made up of the keepers from Nevill Holt, Rosedale and Westerdale estates, treated onlookers to a virtuoso shooting display as partridges and pheasants with a strong wind at their tails blitzed over. One young keeper, Tom Munday, who was positioned in the bottom of a steep bowl, barely missed a bird.
Once a sufficient number of birds had been dropped – which didn't take long - the drive was brought to a halt by the judges who then instructed each of the nine dogs, to make their final retrieves. After a short period of deliberation, the Championship was deemed to be over; the judges had seen enough. But having done such a great job over the past three days, the Guns were invited to complete the drive, and hundreds of observers lingered for round two of the shooting masterclass.
It was then back to the main carpark where a marquee had been erected for the prize giving. Handlers waited nervously for the judges to return with their final verdicts, and photographers jostled for the best spots in front of the trophy table.
Kaliture Black Spruce
Owner/Handler: Mr K Broomfield
Owner: Mrs C Finlan
Owner/Handler: Mrs S Rowe
Owner/Handler: Mrs L Partridge
F.T.Ch. Emmanygan Rocket of Chatsworth
Handler: Mr J W Halsted
F.T.Ch. Whitesmiths Widgeon
F.T.Ch. Jagdens Gander
Tweedshot Thistle of Levenghyl
Owner/Handler: Mrs P Williams
F.T.Ch. Adoraden Izzy of Greenbriar
Owner/Handler: Mrs C Clarke