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Woody has his way
By Steve Bowman
Great Outdoor Games staff

STUTTGART, Ark. — Woody picked up where he left off last year in the Super Retriever Series in an opening round that could be summed up as a battle between raw talent and experience.

Dana Giovanello
Dana Giovanello: "Right now the game is to survive."
Woody is the raw talent. The black Labrador, handled by Mike Creasey, has taken somewhat of a commanding lead going into the quarterfinal round, which isn't totally surprising.

The retriever was the top dog in the 2002 Super Retriever Series event and qualified for the ESPN Great Outdoor Games. This year, though, things are a little bit different. A year ago Woody was handled by professional trainer and handler Mark Miles. This year those handling responsibilities belong to Creasey, Woody's owner. As for Creasey, this was the first time he had ever run a retriever in any type of field trial.

"Sure made us pros look bad," joked Clint Johnson of El Paso, Ark., a professional trainer who failed to make the cut after day one.

In an event that is designed to find the best handler/retriever teams in the nation, Woody and Creasey's top score of 10 didn't surprise many of the hardened veterans that ran the course.

"It's still a team sport," one trainer said. "But Mike (Creasey) had Michael Jordan on his team."

Other top teams to make the final include veteran handler Jerry Day with his yellow Labrador Nike. Day is a former gold and silver medallist in the ESPN Great Outdoor Games. He won both of those medals with Super Sue, Nike's mother.

Day was tied for second with an opening round score of 17. In the same spot is Stacey West and Scout of Wendell, N.C., Chris Akin and Boomer of Jonesboro, Ark., were fourth with 18 points, and Dana Giovanello and Windy rounded out the top five with 20 points.

The Super Retriever Series events are officially the qualifying events for the retriever competition for the ESPN Great Outdoor Games. This is the second of three events that pit the best retrieving/handling teams in the nation in a field trial. This event started with 51 teams and after Thursday was cut to 25.

The remaining 25 will run Friday, cutting to a semi-final 12, and on Saturday the field will cut to six for the final on Sunday. The first two days of competition are being held near Stuttgart with the final two rounds scheduled to take place at Mack's Prairie Wings.

Just like the real thing

The trial serves to emulate a pseudo-waterfowl hunt. Training dummies are launched at varying intervals and distances in a 200-acre course. The course is made of rolling hills, a pond, tall grass and in this case a brutal cross wind that continually blew dogs off line and out of the competition.

It's still a team sport, but (Creasey) had Michael Jordan on his team.
An unnamed competitor, marvelling at the raw talent of Mike Creasey's dog Woody.
Handlers are scored on their ability to guide their retrievers through the course and pick up the training dummies without making mistakes. In this round, the teams were required to pick up three marks, or dummies, they saw fall.

It sounds simple, but this course definitely threw its curves into the mix.

The first mark fell approximately 250 yards from the line. In between it and the dogs was a pond, forcing the dogs to take a straight line through tall grass and rolling terrain and make an extreme angling water entry. If the dogs got through that without any penalties, the handler had to fight the cross wind to keep their dogs on line, while pushing them over or around small points of land that were strategically in place to throw the dogs off.

The second mark landed approximately 100 yards away directly in front of the dog, but was thrown toward the line to throw off the retriever's depth perception.

"They are two relatively easy marks," said Justin Tackett, organizer of the event. "But the third mark, a racer that is thrown and bounced just a few feet in front of the dog, just totally wipes out the memory on the first two marks."

The final mark was also used as a breaking bird, with four of the dogs in the contest breaking to retrieve it before it was sent. Uncontrolled breaks in the Super Retriever Series are automatic disqualifications.

The handlers were judged on their ability to guide their retrievers to the marks with whistles and hand signals. Scoring was based on the number of whistles. Each whistle was assessed two points, with points added to the overall score for a variety of other mistakes. Points were added for leaving the hunt area, refusing a cast or whistle made by the handler and "popping," a five-point penalty assessed when the dog becomes confused and sits down before the handler blows the whistle.

"This course was exceptional," Day said. "When I first looked at it, I didn't think that it would be that hard. But I was wrong. It was put together masterfully and it really tested these dogs and handlers.

"All over the course, everything about it wanted to push the dogs to the right and away from the marks. You really had to do things right."

Day said doing things right meant to insure that you didn't score too many points so you could make the cut, but making sure you stayed with the retriever and kept him out of trouble.

"Right now the game is to survive," Giovanello said.

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Super Retriever Series: Day 1 standings

Super Retriever Series: The seeds of experience

Seeding list for the Super Retriever Series event, March 13-16, Stuttgart, Ark.

Super Retriever Series: The human factor