Inside the viewing gallery, staffers from Shanmu Farm were massaging their dogs.
Fang Zhao and Wu Yi hung out in the official viewing gallery. The competition venue was too big. They could never take in the entirety of the grounds. Some viewers used binoculars, whereas others who were lazier were ensconced in their chairs, watching the live broadcast.
"We're third up today. It's a decent position. Relax, Master Su. Don't worry. We'll keep you updated through your earpiece," Wu Yi said. "Master Su, you can warm up with the dogs right now. Even roaming around or jumping up and down will do. It will help calm nerves and prevent your muscles from stiffening. Just follow your routine in practice. We should be able to post a time of under 7 minutes."
Zuo Yu glanced at Wu Yi then at Fang Zhao before dropping his head. Even if they managed a sub-7 minute performance, a first-place finish would likely require a time 5 minutes or less. If they didn't place first, then Fang Zhao's 10 million dollar bet was gone.
The order of appearance for the eight teams from the eight farms had been determined in the morning by a draw of lots. The results of the betting would be announced after the competition. After Fang Zhao placed his bet, he started monitoring betting activity on this eastern regional contest online.
There was some discussion of the third team to appear, Dongshan Farm.
"Dongshan Farm? How come I haven't heard of it before? It's got 30-odd points already."
"Dongshan Farm is what was known as Xishan Farm. There was a change of ownership, so the name changed."
"Let me check who the owner is. Oh, it's a member of the Su family. And it's one of the Su kids. Who is this kid?"
"Isn't it Su Hou, the kid who was caught on camera by paparazzi a while back? Now he's buying farms?"
"I'm not worried about the farm being renamed or a change in ownership. All I care about is the dogs it's entered in the competition. I checked. Dongshan's lineup won't do. Apart from its A dog, the others don't look promising. And there's actually a tiny puppy. Ha—were they that short on talent that they had to draft a pet dog to beef up their numbers?"
Many folks noticed the list of dogs that Dongshan had entered. The last one was a curly-haired dog that stood out. These experienced dog watchers could tell right away that this was not a professional shepherd dog. They scrutinized its listed weight. Wow, it's that small?
"There's actually a team that fielded a pet dog to boost its numbers."
From a Muzhou native's perspective, a pet dog was different from a work dog. In their eyes, a pet dog was a house plant pampered in a greenhouse. It was sissy, fragile, and served no practical purpose whatsoever, so when they spotted a small curly-haired dog on Dongshan Farm's roster, some folks completely lost interest.
"To be fair, Dongshan Farm's A dog isn't bad. It's a shame that..."
More often than not, the A dog was the lead dog. That was why it was the first dog that fans paid attention to. They evaluated the entire team, its herding patterns and so on based on the strength of the A dog. But Dongshan Farm's unprofessional lineup on paper disappointed many.
Apart from the official betting pool, other private companies organized their own pools, but their bets were capped at 1 million. After Wu Yi placed an official bet, he bet through a private platform as well.
Unlike the official pool, the private platform offered only one type of bet—first place.
Different odds were listed for the eight teams. Dongshan Farm was the least favored with the lowest odds.
"5.4? That iss to say, if we place first, I'll receive 5.4 times the amount I bet?" Zuo Yu was going to enter the official pool like Fang Zhao, but when he noticed Wu Yi betting on a private platform, he switched over as well. They were only betting on themselves—might as well pick the platform with the bigger payout.
Zuo Yu bought 10,000 entries in the private pool for a total sum of 50,000 dollars.
"Boss, you're not going to place a heavier bet?" Zuo Yu asked casually. Lo and behold, Fang Zhao placed another 1 million.
By the time betting had ended on all platforms, final preparations were underway at the competition venue. Workers inspected the pasture, a scene that was shown in the live broadcast to highlight the fact that organizers conducted a meticulous sweep. There would be no cheating.
When the first team performed, Su Hou started jogging in circles, but the warm-up didn't alleviate his nerves, instead aggravating his anxiety. Every time he stopped, he would get antsy and check the timer obsessively.
"Six minutes and 51 seconds! The first team finished with a final result of 6 minutes and 51 seconds. That's a decent time." The commentator evaluated the performance of the first team of dogs.
The first team of shepherd dogs wasn't fast, but they didn't make any big mistakes. Posting a sub-7 minute time was a decent showing. At least they wouldn't finish last.
By the time the second team was competing, Su Hou had to lead his dogs out into the field. Wu Yi followed and returned soon. He kept wiping the sweat on his forehead. He was a picture of calm just now, but this was his first competition as a contestant. While the team was named after Dongshan Farm, six of the dogs were from his farm. No wonder he was so nervous.
By the time Wu Yi returned, the second team had completed its routine. He checked the time on the big screen: 6 minutes and 43 seconds.
Two consecutive teams posting times under 7 minutes put quite a bit of pressure on the third team. A time of 6 minutes or so wasn't stellar, but it wasn't bad either. Wu Yi was getting more and more nervous. He didn't expect his dogs to be spectacular—just as long as they could herd all the sheep into the pen. After all, it was their first contest. Who knew what could go wrong?
Wu Yi rummaged through his pockets impatiently. He couldn't find anything. He was so tense when he left the farm he forgot to stuff straw in his pockets. Now he couldn't fight his jitters by chewing on a piece of straw. He glanced to his side instead. "Fang Zhao, aren't you worried?"
"I couldn't tell. You seem quite calm. What are you jotting down? Tactical notes?" Wu Yi approached and craned his neck, then went silent.
The piece of paper was covered with scribblings that Wu Yi couldn't decipher—Fang-style musical notations.
Wu Yi was about to say something when he heard Zuo Yu comment: "We're up."
On the big screen, the camera paused on the instructor's podium. Su Hou was very tight. He kept on mumbling.
"Little Mr. Su is probably memorizing his gestures, hehe." The commentator followed with a knowing laugh. "As many people know, Little Mr. Su bought was used to be Xishan Farm and renamed it Dongshan Farm. The shepherd dogs he entered aren't the ones from Xishan Farm that people know so well. These are all new faces. Oh, and there's a small pet dog on their team. Little Mr. Su doesn't seem that confident either, but that's understandable. Debutant's jitters. OK, let's get back to the competition. The countdown has started. Let's see what kind of result this new team of dogs led by Little Mr. Su can manage."
Tick, tick, tick.
The sound of the countdown clock reverberated through the field.
"Off we go!"
One hundred sheep rushed into the field, and the seven dogs emerged from passageways on their two flanks.
"Off we go! As we can see, the dogs from the third team, Dongshan Farm, have adopted a circular approach. Pay attention to how they cluster the sheep. This positioning... That's not right. Dog A doesn't seem to be in the right position." The passionate commentator became confused. "Is Dongshan Farm switching tactics?"
Inside the closed viewing gallery, Wu Yi was watching in a pseudo-praying position. He kept repeating in his head—stay in position, stay in position!
But Wu Yi was rudely interrupted by the menacing voice of the commentator.
"It's Dog B. Dog B is in the wrong position. It's gone down the wrong flank. It seems a bit nervous. It's probably realized its mistake and is now slowing down. Let's see how Little Mr. Su adjusts."
Wu Yi slapped himself in the face. He couldn't watch any more. Dog B? Little Lucky? Little Lucky was typically such a steady performer.
It was the dogs' first shepherding competition. The new surroundings were bound to take some getting used to and would lead to discomfort. But if even Little Lucky was making mistakes, the others were probably faring worse.
Wu Yi might have been quite talkative under normal circumstances, but at a time like this, he was at a loss. His head was spinning. He couldn't verbalize his thoughts. He turned his head toward Fang Zhao, who had already picked up his walkie-talkie.
The commentator continued, "Su Hou has asked to intervene. But it's a bit too late. The sheep are dispersing again. One group of sheep is peeling away from the main group. This is what happens when a dog attacks the wrong flank."
The commentator was delighted by the rare sight of a sheep cluster gone astray. He sounded like he wanted to jump. "We're losing sheep! Let's see what Little Mr. Su signals to Dog B and if Dog B can return to the right position. Wait..." Halfway through his spiel, Su Hou's projection appeared not in front of Dog B but rather Dog G.
The curly-haired one?
Su Hou made a hand gesture. He was so nervous he got it wrong initially but quickly corrected himself. Following Fang Zhao's instructions, he signaled Curly Hair to round up the sheep.
When he was done, Su Hou didn't look very confident.
"Little Mr. Su's signal is to round up the sheep. Unbelievable. He actually signaled a little pet dog to lead the roundup. I think he made the wrong hand gesture." The commentator was about to elaborate when he saw Curly Hair dash like the wind.
"Such amazing speed! Great coverage! But it's too far from the sheep. It can't accomplish the task. Woah, the sheep are converging. The lost sheep are returning to the fold."
The commentator wiped away his sweat. It felt like he had not been able to utter a complete sentence since the third team had taken off. He had to switch gears mid-sentence every time.
On the field, the small cluster of sheep that had left the main group like a wayward branch veered back toward the core group on a parabolic trajectory.
"Setting up a blockade. The sheep have converged. Impressive—a tiny dog actually set up the blockade for the third team."
The commentator stopped using the word "pet."