‘The granddaddy of dog trials’
September 11, 2005
Sheepdogs and their handlers from around the United States and the world gathered in Meeker this weekend.Each were hoping to take top honors at gathering, herding and separating the skittish critters that once were an important part of the Western Slope economy.The winner this year was a dog named Pleat, owned by Scott Glenn from New Dayton, Alberta, Canada, followed in second place by Ethel, another Canadian, owned by Amanda Milliken of Kingston, Ontario, and an Easterner, Sly, owned by Tom Wilson of Gordonsville, Va., in third.The Meeker Classic Sheepdog Championship Trials, a five-day annual event in its 19th consecutive year, offered a total of $20,000 in prize money, from the $5,000 that went to the top dog down to $200 to 20th place. Additional special awards added to the cash total of the winners.Saturday’s semifinal competition was attended by hundreds of spectators whose cars were lined up in a vacant field just west of town. Under a hot sun that took the chill out of the fall air, the crowd shopped, ate and watched the tense trials, as dog and handler tried to overcome the natural skittishness of the sheep and put them through an impressive array of moves.
The Classic was born out of necessity – back in the late 1980s, Meeker’s economy had slowed down to a point that was distressing local officials and citizens. Cattle and sheep ranching were still economic pillars in the region, but the energy industry had fallen on hard times with the collapse of the oil shale boom.Then-Mayor Gus Halandras, descended from Greek sheep ranchers who had settled in the area decades earlier, was looking for an economic boost that would keep Meeker on the map, recalled Classic spokeswoman Sandra Besseghini.A sheep handler at the Halandras ranch, Laura Lou Colby Brown, reportedly remarked to the mayor one day, “You’re sitting on the natural solution,” pointing to the local sheep ranching industry, and a tradition was born.At the time, said Besseghini, sheepdog trials were much more prevalent in Europe than in the U.S. In this country, she said, sheep ranchers were holding small, informal competitions at the local and even regional level, sometimes out of the back of pickup trucks and not nearly at the organizational level of the Europeans.
Today, the Classic is recognized as one of the most important of the championship trials around the U.S., in large part because the 700 sheep used in the competition have been summering on their own in the high country and are not as docile as the pen-kept sheep used in many competitions.And the event has grown into a community celebration. There is a food and crafts fair adjacent to the grounds of the trials, and live music and other attractions at the Rio Blanco Courthouse lawn. They keep the town’s historical museum open especially for the Classic.On Sunday, the day of the finals, a bagpiper was scheduled to play his mournful instrument throughout the day. A Rio Blanco Wool Growers lamb barbecue was planned for lunch, along with entertainment by the Thunder Mountain Pipe Band.”It’s kind of the granddaddy of dog trials,” Besseghini declared, an assessment seconded by the Classic’s director, Ellen Nieslanik, whose relations are scattered around the Western Slope, including the Roaring Fork Valley.
“If you win Meeker, it’s better than winning the national finals,” Nieslanik said of the Classic’s growing prestige. “This is a tough, tough trial.This year’s field of competition included 130 dogs. This year, for the first time, each dog was sponsored by a business or individual that put up $100 each for a dog they’d never seen (dogs and sponsors were matched through a drawing) as a way of beefing up the purse. A number of Roaring Fork Valley names were among the sponsors, including Berthod Motors of Glenwood Springs, D&B Bulldozer (Doug Farris) of Carbondale, the Strang Ranch of Carbondale and Nick Coates of Aspen.Besseghini said that 110 of the dogs actually are working dogs on ranches and that two of them came over from South Africa to compete. Others through the years have come from Australia, Canada and Scotland. This year’s judge was a Scotsman, in fact – Jimmy Smith of Ayrshire, Scotland, doing the honors for the second year in a row and adding to the event’s international flair.John Colson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org