Emerging from the scratcher a little dazed and confused after a rather decent session on the soda pop the day before was the easy part of my event preparation. Rescuing my mate’s Foxy-cross Jose from a year of fine dining and couch living was the hard part.
Jose thought his Winter Festival duties were complete after his obligatory appearance in the Air New Zealand Kia ora magazine and a cheeky wee photo shoot for the Otago Daily Times the previous week.
He had retired back to Lake Hayes estate to live off past glory, thinking “Surely, this semi-towny git Wilson isn’t going to turn up expecting my rotund and aged carcass to run down a snow covered mountain competing against much larger, younger and fitter rural dogs. When will this try-hard bush dweller from Otatara realise I've earned my Tux Senior and excessive attention from my owners young children?”
Tough luck, Jose. After seven years as a teammate, you’re not getting out of this one.
The Speight's Dog Derby is Queenstown Winter Festival’s oldest and most iconic events. First held in 1976, it’s a day where town meets country, country meets snow—often yellow snow—and Hilux meets road slug campervan on the way up the access road when you running late.
Around here, having dogs on snow is nothing new. Farm dogs on snow are a little rarer, but we all know that when a mongrel southerly rips up the land, even the lowest laying lifestyle blocks can get a coating.
Dogs on a chairlift, however, are not something you see every day. The amusement the large crowd gleans from witnessing a rugged-looking Huntaway cower and needing to be coaxed onto the chairlift, comforted like a Frenchman after the Rugby World Cup final, is worth the price of admission alone.
The townies get first dig at the course, which runs from about midway up Coronet Peak down to the base lodge, which by now has become packed with curious tourists and interested locals to witness what is akin to the sport of cheese rolling in the UK, except it’s dogs chasing out-of-control owners down a snow-covered slope.
There can be a quite a difference between your average domesticated city slicking, coat wearing, dog groomer visiting town pooch and a well-trained, raw meat-eating, battler from the country. So to avoid any embarrassment for the townies and their cuddly bundles of joy, the race is split between town and country.
Townies are in luck if they make it down, mission accomplished. The poor country dogs, already dazed and confused from trying to muster a bunch of Australian tourists into a snow fence, are forced to tackle a short gated course back up the hill alone before being able to tuck into left over hot dogs back at the Ski Patrol hut.
Conditions under paw for the country race where softer than Athletic Park in the 80’s, which was a disadvantage for me and Jose. He has even smaller legs now his dog motor has expanded to fill up most of his chassis.
I decided to go ‘John Kirwan styles’ and tuck him under my wing, fend off anyone who gets close and head for the corner. This was great, but without putting Jose in danger of a broken neck to go with the indignity of being carried down the hill, I couldn’t get up much speed.
Eventually, the soft powder gives way to a hard and fast main trail, which enabled all manner of high speed ACC claim-inducing sliding mayhem to occur. I picked up some of the stragglers and among the snow blindness, managed to completely overshoot the finishing gate ending my slide by the main deck among some confused looking Koreans.
Jose posed for a few photos, and I angled for phone numbers, but the language barrier meant they understood about as much of my rambling as Jose did when I ordered him to head up and through the gates at the top of the mustering course.
Jose, as he tends to do most, sniffed a few more bums, entertained the kids and had a gaggle of ladies queuing for photos, while the winners were actually completing the course. Ever the showman, Jose.
Christian Chester and pooch Mojo took line honours in the ‘townie’ division, with Linden Brackstone and Deagle coming in second and Matt Cater and Leo claiming third place.
In the main event, the battle for best Dog Derby Dog and Owner went to Max and his trusty owner Troy MacDonald. Taking out second was Leo Hamilton with Tay and crossing the line in third were Tom Ward and Tuma.
I dumped Jose in the back of the Hilux and enjoyed a few ales with my fellow ice covered competitors. Despite poor reviews from the critics, Jose still draws a crowd. So I reckon the old dog has a few new tricks to show for next year and won’t be getting his pass to peace haven and sponge baths just yet.
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