This Saturday, February 25 marks the fourth year The New Barker will be covering the Jack Russell Terrier Races at the beautiful Little Everglades Ranch in Dade City. What follows is an excerpt, which first appeared in the Spring, 2008 issue of The New Barker about these fine, funny, fearless little dogs:
On a cool, sunny, rather perfect day for a stroll, dogs and horses of a very special stripe were queuing up for much more than a walk in the park. Just north of Dade City, a spectacularly colorful dual racing event brought The New Barker dog magazine out of its urban confines, to cover the Little Everglades Steeplechase Jack Russell Terrier Races. The dogs compete on a 150-foot straight course that has several hurdles over the length of the track. We had no idea what we were in for, but from the looks of the crowd and the electric atmosphere, we knew it was going to be special. About an hour before post time, Jack Russell’s were everywhere, getting prepped for the upcoming heats—the excitement was palpable—and I needed to get close to the action.
The gentleman wore a baseball cap and dark sunglasses, and watched as I approached the Terrier racecourse. “You with the media?” he asked, very matter-of-factly. Still not quite accustomed to that question, and a little intimidated by his imposing stature, I answered, “I’m with The New Barker.” He chuckled and told me the best way to photograph a Jack Russell race was to aim the camera through the cut out where the dogs, chasing the lure, would be barreling through at the end of the race. He pointed at the ground-level opening he was referring to, which was about a foot in diameter. I would have a bird’s-eye view of the dogs running straight at me. However, it meant I would need to lie on the hay-covered dirt, precious camera propped up by my elbows, aim and shoot. As the dogs neared the entryway into the catch pen, I would have to use my own judgment as to when I would roll to one side to keep from being trampled by the crazed little guys. “They get pretty wild and don’t stop, so you’re going to have to move fast to get out of their way,” he said. Another thing I needed to be concerned with, he told me. The lure was attached to a string and pulled lightning-fast by a pulley behind us. The string and the lure would be coming through the same little hole that the dogs would be running through. “Get too close to that, and it’ll cut right through your clothing and into your skin,” he cautioned me. Then he looked at me and asked, “Interested?” Was I ever!
He lifted the rope and helped me climb over the bales of hay that contained the makeshift six-by-six holding pen. “My name’s Darren Shiver, by the way.” “Nice to meet you Darren,” I answered. He introduced me to his wife Fran, whom I’d spoken to earlier in the week by phone. Also in the catch pen were eight students from Zephyrhills’ Heritage Academy School, who volunteered to catch the terriers as they came racing through the opening. Thankfully, each dog would be wearing a muzzle to keep from harming each other or their handlers. If the dogs bumped into one another, they would get into a scuffle.
Nevertheless, the dogs were pumped with excitement by the time they reached the end of the race in the catch pen. To the dogs, that furry lure was their prized fox and most of them were focused on nothing else but catching it. Fran had a walkie-talkie so that she could talk to the race volunteers at the starting line, letting them know when we were all ready on our end for the next race. She also tabulated the results of each race.
The first few races were open to amateurs. Those were called training heats. To the delight of their humans, the Jack Russell Terriers who had never done anything like this before were allowed to partake in the fun. Some dogs took to the race instinctively, while others didn’t have a clue. Uncomfortable with the muzzles and confused by the commotion of the cheering crowd, a few dogs had to be coaxed by their owners to finish the race. This was done on several occasions by the human jumping onto the track and coaxing their dog with, “Come on, let’s go, you can do it!” after the race had been completed by the other dogs.
As the official races were about to begin, we learned that each dog could race up to six times during the course of the day. The dogs were grouped by size, between the standards and the talls. For example the talls — all dogs over 30 centimeters at the shoulders, would race together.
The first sets of 100-meter races were on a straight, empty track. Chasing a fox lure, each dog would race in a heat and their placing was determined by which final they would draw. For instance, if a dog ran first in his heat he drew into the first’s final, if he ran second, he drew into the second’s final and so on. Up to eight dogs could compete in any one race. After the 100-meter flat heats and finals came the 100-meter hurdles, where the dogs chased the lure while jumping over a series of hurdles. There were twenty-six races throughout the day and just one or two close calls from my vantage point.
As the day wore on, I became a little more brave with each race, waiting until (what I thought) was the last minute. One dog ran into my index finger as I tried rolling out of his way. But I didn’t mind. To be down on the ground watching six to eight dogs as they bore down on me was almost mesmerizing and incredibly exhilarating. During the following two weeks, I would look at the bruise on my index finger (which hurt like the dickens) and smile at the memory of my experience. While I may not have gotten the best photographs, I had the best seat in the house, by far.