GRAND JUNCTION, Tenn. — People who don’t follow high-level field trials closely probably have no idea what goes on behind the scenes at an event like the annual National Championship for Field Trialing Bird Dogs at Ames Plantation.
For many, such trials must seem like a simple matter of releasing a dog from a box, pointing it in the right direction and hoping it finds plenty of quail.
But each year, the trial proves to be so much more than that.
Whether it’s a dog having a great run because its handlers made a perfect last-minute decision to wrap its paws because of frozen conditions or a national championship trainer collapsing with a near-fatal ailment at the awards ceremony, the event is always heavy on storylines.
This year’s storylines will begin with the drawing at 6:30 p.m. Saturday and the first morning brace at 8 a.m. Monday.
“We’ll probably be looking at about 40 dogs in this year’s event -- and with that many quality dogs each attempting a three-hour run, you just never know what’s going to happen,” said Dr. Rick Carlisle, superintendent at Ames Plantation and chief organizer for the event. “There’s some strategy involved that a lot of people probably don’t know much about, but there’s also some good, old-fashioned luck of the draw. It all makes for an interesting couple of weeks.”
One storyline that always develops during the trial is the availability of birds on the morning and afternoon courses.
While the quail population at Ames is always good due to strenuous, year-round work by the Plantation staff, weather and atmospheric conditions play a huge role in how much the birds choose to move. Therefore, what qualified as a “championship day” for a dog last year might not be good enough this year.
“Touch’s Whiteout” (2011 winner) and “Connor’s EZ Button” (2012) won the last two championships with six finds apiece. Both dogs had what most people described as excellent runs despite the somewhat modest quail totals.
Those six finds likely wouldn’t have been enough to beat “In the Shadow” (2010) or “Whippoorwill Wild Agin” (2008), which each won the championship with 10 finds. But they might have been enough to slip by “Lester’s Snowatch,” which won the title in 2009 with only four.
“You don’t have to have the best run that anybody has ever seen,” Carlisle said. “You have to have what the judges deem to be the best run of this year’s event. It’s a relative term every year.”
Connor’s EZ Button actually tied another dog for the most finds in last year’s event with six. But it was the dog’s overall form and style that helped propel it to victory.
“He did what he always does -- he ran to the front and stayed in the front,” said handler Steve Hurdle, who won his second title last year. “He’s a special dog. If he gets out of sight and doesn’t show up soon, you know he’s pointed somewhere. He’s one of the classiest dogs I’ve ever worked with.”
The dog impressed the judges by running the entire three hours with its tail pointed up.
“They call that ‘happy tail’ -- and it’s something you can’t really teach,” Carlisle said. “That’s something that really gets the judges’ attention.”
Though he may not admit it, Hurdle likely enjoyed parts of last year’s championship more than the one he claimed back in 2006. That’s because, after accepting the trophy for that first win seven years ago, he collapsed with an aortic aneurysm and was lucky to survive.
Thankfully, most subplots for the event aren’t as frightening as that one. But there always seem to be plenty of them.
During last year’s event, a dog named Gamemaker was hit by a truck while attempting to cross a road near the end of its three-hour run. The dog was described by observers as “stunned and bloody” after the incident, but it was fine after being treated for minor scrapes and bruises.
No one knows what storylines may pop up this year.
“There are always five or six dogs qualified for the national championship that end up not running for some reason,” Carlisle said. “Last year, we had a dog that spent months recovering from a torn ACL only to tear up another ACL right before the trial.
“When we hold that drawing, we always tell people we’re drawing for brace mates and order of running. We don’t have any control over anything else.”
(Contact Bryan Brasher of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, Tenn., at firstname.lastname@example.org.)