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MIDWAY — Five years ago, Breda Darrington — and her Labrador retriever, Sundance — caught a glimpse of a long jump competition for dogs on TV.
Sensing her pet's curiosity, Darrington signed up for a similar jumping competition called "splash dogs" at the annual Soldier Hollow Classic festival in Midway.
What started as an unlikely curiosity has become a cherished tradition for both dog and owner, and Sundance isn't just content to participate anymore. With a 19-foot jump into the pool Sunday afternoon, the dog was in contention to reach the competition finals the next day.
"One day she just started flying. She's doing really well," said Darrington, from Taylorsville. "She loves it."
Sundance, and Darrington's other Labrador retriever, Chocolate, now have a special sense for when they're arriving at the yearly contest they treasure so much.
"In the car ... they will both start freaking out, whining, because they're so excited," Darrington said.
Darrington was one of many proud dog owners at Soldier Hollow Classic, a Labor Day weekend tradition in Midway since 2003 that brings in tens of thousands of visitors and whose main attraction is its prestigious sheepdog championship.
That competition pits sheepdogs — specially trained border collies — against time, the terrain and a small herd of sheep that have a mind of their own. The sheepdogs are given 13 minutes to lead the group of six sheep along a certain route on a large hillside, separate them into two groups and herd them into an enclosed pen.
The sheepdogs prance around the group of sheep frenetically, prodding sometimes from the back of the pack and other times hemming in stray sheep from the side or leading from the front.
They have the help of their human handler, albeit via whistling at long distance — up to 400 yards. The expert herding tasks accomplished by sheepdog and handler were met with oohs and aahs by their numerous onlookers Sunday.
Heidi Studerus, visiting from Switzerland to watch her nephew compete in the herding contest, said she was amazed at the work it took to get the sheep to move with purpose. While the animals would move in fits and starts, she laughed, "when they see a green spot, they're eating, eating, eating."
"I think the sheep are a little bit wrong-thinking," she quipped. "That's difficult for the dog."
Steve Cohn, who splits his time between living in Midway and Southern California, flew to Utah with his son Ari over the weekend to visit the festival and watch the sheepdog competition for the first time.
"What's impressive is the whistling — the accuracy of the whistles," Cohn said.
Cohn was also fascinated to learn that "people are coming out from all over the world to compete here."
Soldier Hollow Classic organizers tout competitors as "the world's finest sheepdog handlers representing Europe, Africa and North America," taken from among the winners in several other contests.
Despite the level of competition, the mood among the watching crowd is easygoing, Cohn said.
"I enjoy this kind of life," he said, gesturing around at the golf-like spectator atmosphere and the scenic hillside. "I'm from L.A., but I actually prefer this."
In agreement was Patty Holmes, who traveled from Bend, Oregon, to have her Belgian Malinois named Blackjack complete in the splash dog event. Holmes said the camaraderie among dog enthusiasts is what makes the competitions worthwhile.
"It's a wonderful family event," Holmes said. "It's a lot of fun to be around other people that love dogs."
Darrington echoed her thoughts, calling the event "low key" and "fun for the family, fun for the dogs."
"We love our dogs and want them to have fun," Darrington said.
Other big features at the Soldier Hollow Classic include old Celtic strength contests such as the caber toss, a wild animal show, various arts and craft tents, and "demonstrations by Navajo artisans," organizers say.
Cole Lister, who runs sheep-shearing demonstrations at the festival, says the Soldier Hollow Classic is designed as a way to "become educated on the traditions and foundations that tie us into the past and detach from modern life to an extent."
Lister, who was a commercial sheep shearer for more than 10 years, said it is rewarding to teach people "something that's passionate to me, and obviously near and dear to my heart." Some are surprised to find that shearing sheep all day is "like running a marathon," he said.
"It comes at a very high cost, physically, mentally and otherwise," Lister said. "It's a very old school job. I think it's amazing for people to see the pastoral and agricultural lifestyle."
The Soldier's Hollow Classic concludes Monday. Event times and ticket information can be found at soldierhollowclassic.com. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @benlockhartnews