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Lindy Margach ventures into deepest Kensington

At last, there she was at Olympia. Not in her 'own right' as it were  - that's a long way in the future – but as an awe-struck Elementary handler with two lovely Labradors to her name reporting for Agilitynet on the ABC events. Lindy Margach reports on the last day of the agility competitions on the last day of Olympia 2006... and there isn't a collie in sight!

And what a strange environment this is for an agility competition. There are loads of horses of all shapes and sizes (mostly enormous!), all whinnying, snorting and pawing, and a shopping environment to tempt anyone to flex the plastic.

But I'm here to report on the ABC day, when the best of the rest come to strut their stuff under the lights and prove to the hugely enthusiastic crowds that there's more to dog agility than a flashing blur of black-and- white. 

First up is the speed jumping.
You can tell this is going to be fast. There are ten dogs in the final with just 15 minutes allocated to build the course, walk it, compete and clear it all away after the equines' Christmas Eve Six Bar competition and the Dressage Quadrille of the Hanoverian State Stud. Woe betide you if you get held up getting to the arena ... and watch out for flying hooves!

Spirit of Thomas, the six-year-old German Shepherd kennelmate to the Engelbrecht's 60-weave world record holder Zinzan, was first on the line. Thomas set off at a cracking pace only to fall prey to Melanie's sidestep at jump number six, which earned five faults.

TykeDaphne Loveland's Kelpie Dragonheart Tyke was next to go, but a disappointing five at the very first jump followed by a pole down at the 14th put him out of the running. Precious Skip, the greyhound x Labrador run by Keira McGrouther, made the journey from Edinburgh worthwhile when he stormed round the course clear in 32.13 seconds to put his paws firmly on the crystal.

Andy Brown's 3-year-old Belgian Shepherd Groenendael Skye (Heidron Chasing Stormy Sky) followed Keira to the start line. With the crowd egged on by the commentator, they too skimmed round the course to match the time exactly. Was this to be the first joint first place at Olympia?

Petra & KeiraPetra Craven-Houghton, it seemed, had other ideas. Spurred on by the example of the previous two competitors Mr Defeur D'oh - for the uninitiated, it's pronounced ‘D for Dog' - the 8-year-old Lab-cross was up for the challenge. Some tight turns and a powerful weave brought him over the finishing line in 31.97 seconds.

Now it was up to Colin Skeaping, with the 4-year-old beardie Pelham Tully. Unfortunately, a refusal at the wall added a crucial five seconds to his time of 37.83, but with former Luke Skywalker stuntman Colin's mind more on the fortunes of his ailing 16-year-old Worzel, it perhaps wasn't surprising that Tully wasn't at his best.

Carl Lumley followed him in with Woolstone Dingo Dile. Better known as Aussie, the six-year-old Kelpie bitch has been deaf since the age of 18 months so Carl has to make sure he keeps ahead of her. That's no mean feat round a course of this length, but his legs and lungs were up to the task and the pair crossed the finish line together with a clear round in 33.31 to slide into fourth place.

Nigel Staines, whose Kelpie Zico (Dragonhart Dark Destroyer) was the first non-collie in 30 years to take the 2006 UK Agility Club's Advanced Agility Dog of the Year trophy was ready to rock and roll around this course. But a misjudged pole at the 16th added five seconds to his course record time of 31.02 seconds, dropping him into fifth.

So far the course had run very cleanly, with no-one falling into the little traps, but Niki Keeler's big Belgian Shepherd Terveurein Nickila Highland Cruise lived up to his name as he ‘cruised' from the 14th straight to the 19th to win the only ‘E' of the round from judge Andy Hudson. 

Now it was up to Brenda Hollis and her massive Belgian Shepherd Terveurein Baudwin Cappamore – better known as Bailey – to take the honours. The pair set off in fine style and, with the crowd cheering them on, looked almost certain to get into the money. But as they powered down the final straight, it seemed that Brenda was gradually leaning further and further forward. Eventually, gravity took over and she swallow-dived elegantly into the soft sand of the arena, causing Bailey to slam on the brakes to investigate his mistresses unusual position, before gracefully clearing the 19th and 20th jumps in fine style but dropping to seventh place with a clear in 41.20 seconds.

Fortunately for all participants, there was plenty of time between the speed jumping and the early evening performance to catch up with the shopping stakes - great dog coats, the latest bling in the form of rhinestones in lurid leather collars and an amazing selection of Christmas party outfits – for the dogs, you understand, not the owners! Should it be a Spider-dog outfit, a little Pirate of the Caribbean or Superdog? I'm not telling.

In fact, the behind-the-scenes coffee shop proved more popular for most of the handlers though Mel disappeared for a few hours to take care of her lovely daughter, 11-week-old Lois, who gurgled happily throughout her first public appearances both backstage and in the ring.

The Kennel Club ABC Agility Final
Judge Andy HudsonIt's the same cast of handlers and dogs with the added complications of contacts thrown in for good measure. Andy Hudson came up with another flowing course, but with just enough handling needed to make it challenging. 

Carl and Aussie started off well, but the turn from the dog walk to the wall proved too much for the little Kelpie, who ducked out to earn five faults. Cruise was, as Nicki feared, having one of his bad days on contacts and misses on the seesaw and the dog walk, together with a number of poles sent flying, put paid to his chances. Tully and Colin didn't click either, with a refusal at the wall and missed contact at the seesaw.

Then Keira McGrouther and Skip set off in great style – but one skip too few at the A-frame and another five faults were notched up. Brenda stayed upright this time, but Bailey's enthusiasm to get on with the job notched up five faults – again a missed contact but this time on the dog walk. Mel and Thomas went one further. Thomas decided that he knew more about setting a course than anyone else in the arena and a rapid deviation across the wall from the wrong direction led to a swift ‘E'.

Surely the first Gronendal to achieve Advanced status could put matters right? Thank goodness for Skye and Andy Brown. To the huge cheers of the crowd, they finally put a clear round on the board in a very respectable 33.75 seconds. Zico and Nigel flew round the course – but a pole at the tenth meant that, yet again, the speedy Kelpie's course record time of 31.63 would not stand because of the 5-second penalty.

This morning's winner, Petra and Mr Defeur D'oh, then followed the trend of the majority, by picking up five faults for yet another missed dog walk contact.

Daphne Loveland'And this,' announced the commentator, 'is the end of the competition.' We were confused. Surely there were ten entries. What about Daphne Loveland and Tyke? They were standing on the start line and ready to go.

Some flurrying amongst the stewards ensued – and then Daphne was on her way.

The crowd quickly realised that there was something special happening here. They stopped chatting and started cheering – and little Tyke lived up to his Dragonheart name. Good contacts on the see-saw, no errors at the long jump or the dog walk ... a perfect A-frame, zip into the tunnel for the last time, over two jumps and the crowd cheering their heads off ... an amazing set of weave poles and over the final jump. They had done it! The very last dog to run at Olympia 2006 had pipped all the other ABCs to the top honour with a fantastic run of 33.47 seconds.

You'd have thought the rafters really were going to lift off!

ABC WinnersWhen I caught up with a still pink and slightly puffing Daphne a few moments later, all she could say was: 'I was just going for a clear round.' Well she got it. In spades.

The excitement of the day was infectious and exhausting – even for a spectator. Highlights included the awe-inspiring speed of the four ring parties who worked as one to build a complete agility course in less than two minutes; the incredible noise of the crowd as they cheered every dog at the tops of their voices; the general colour, spectacle and showmanship that is Olympia. And, as always with agility competitions, the friendliness of the competitors was paramount. They supported each other, welcomed me into their midst and made the day a memory to treasure.

Thank you, Agilitynet, for letting me report on ABC Day. May I do it again next year?

About the author....
Lindy Margach is a journalist and PR consultant. Although she has owned dogs all her life, she is a relative newcomer to the agility scene. Her beloved, chunky black Labrador Shannon introduced her to agility competitions in 2005 and was soon joined by the yellow puppy Bracken, who reached competing age in June 2006. Still with her feet firmly in Grade 1, but with her heart (and head) aching with the effort to attain the ability to carry out Novice handling techniques, she's hoping at least to break into Grade 2 in the coming year.

She lives in Surrey and trains at Sunniday with Lin Bergen, Indira and Carol, and is trying also to hone her skills at KIS with Lisa Jordan.

Photos: Lindy Margach & Kit Houghton