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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Nearly 300 head of wild Utah sheep are unloaded at Soldier Holllow in Midway Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2011. They will be used in the upcoming Soldier Hollow Classic featuring the top herding dogs nationally and internationally.

MIDWAY — Some 275 sheep bolting from a semitrailer Wednesday were among the first participants to arrive for this year's Soldier Hollow Classic sheepdog championship and festival.

All sheepish jokes aside, this group of yearling ewes is the wildcard in a competition that has been the anchor summertime attraction at Soldier Hollow since 2003.

None has worked with a dog before; and at 200 pounds plus, they can be mighty intimidating to a 40-pound Border Collie.

Livestock handler Doug Livingston said he has spent months selecting the yearling ewes from herds around Utah. The sheep wintered on a desert range west of Cedar City and have spent the summer near the Brian Head ski resort. This morning, they were herded into a double-decker trailer and made the trip to Soldier Hollow.

Livingston and his help fitted a ramp on the back of the truck and opened the gates. The sheep came out one at a time at first, then picked up momentum — leaping off the ramp — as more and more reached the open range outside the trailer.

Sheepdog competitions are international events, designed initially so handlers can later buy pups from champion dogs. Most of the invited dog-handler teams at the Soldier Hollow event are national champions or have significant standing in their own country.

Finding sheepdog breeding stock is less of an objective at today's competitions and more of an opportunity to show off.

Beverly Lambert, from Handover, Conn., has been a contestant since the event's second year and has won twice. Her motive for coming: "To win."

But it's more than that. Lambert no longer makes her livelihood with sheep. "It's more of an expensive hobby," she said. "People react funny when I say it's expensive, but you need more than just a dog. You need a farm and flock of sheep."

Some $20,000 in cash prizes means some of the contestants will be able to cover their expenses for the trip to Utah. For the rest — it's a great chance to compete, "and we go home with a big gas bill," Lambert said.

Livingston said he works hard to select sheep that look alike so they're not distinguishable to the contestants. One eager black sheep was too fast to be diverted when Livingston loaded the truck this morning, so it and one sheep wearing a bell are the standouts among the flock.

And, to feed the stereotype, a GoPro news video camera positioned off the bottom of the ramp from the trailer stood fast as sheep after sheep jumped right over it — until the black sheep came down the ramp and knocked it over.

Soldier Hollow Director Howard Peterson said more than 25,000 people attended the sheepdog championship and festival last year. Spectator dogs are not allowed. Peterson said the competition is now the largest in the world, and he expects it will keep growing.

Events in addition to daily sheepdog competitions include best-dressed dog and ugly mutt championships, law enforcement K-9 demonstrations and a dock diving dogs competition.

All-day events are scheduled Friday through Sunday with a medals ceremony Monday. A full schedule is available at www.soldierhollowclassic.com.

E-mail: sfidel@desnews.com Twitter: SteveFidel