Reflections on the Season

2005–06


  By Tom Word



It’s hard to believe another field-trial season has come and gone.  Only yesterday we were waiting impatiently for news of the first prairie winners.  Now the curtain is almost down, the big winners known, the dramas played out.

The season will always be remembered by what happened at the National—Shell Creek Coin’s standout eight-find performance to win and Steve Hurdle’s near-death incident as the pictures were taken.  Thank God, Steve is going to be OK, but it was a near and terrible thing.  Remembered too, by Ricky Chisem’s tragic death in an auto accident—so much promise and enthusiasm snuffed out so needlessly.  And finally, remembered by Gary Pinalto’s death at 65 after a valiant fight against cancer.

The season started for me at the Lee County fall trial.  What a treat to go back in time fifty years!  To sit around in the kitchen with Big George, Pete Hicks, Billy C. Moss, Judges Bobby Roberts and John Hicks, Luke Weaver, Bubba, his daughters Courtney and Daphny and wife Sarah, plus all the Boys of the Road as they stopped in for a biscuit and gravy in the morning and a beer at the end of the day . . .  that’s really field trialing.  (Back in the spring, I’d gone bream fishing with Big George and Luke at Hurtsboro and heard the stories of Big George’s great dogs, Pineland Kate and Judy Warhoop.)

Luke let me ride Cocheese and Pete, his wonderful baby-sitter horses, which knew they had a poor rider and looked out for me like parents with a first baby.  I left Leesburg wishing I could move there, at least for the field-trial season.

Next came the Invitational.  Thanks to John Ivester, Gary Lester, Ferrel Miller, and Greg St John, I had bombproof, super-smooth rides there too.  The weather was good, the races strong, the birds frightfully scarce.  Winner Miller’s Southern Pride and Runner-up Lester’s Absolute were powerful and forward on the ground.  Something must be done about birds at Paducah if this premier stake is to survive there.

Next came the Florida, with 90 entered and the biggest purse in field-trial history ($35,000).  A new two-series format worked well.  We left Chinquapin reminded there are a lot of really strong dogs and dedicated handlers competing these days.  What a treat to see them on beautiful grounds, with plentiful wild quail.  What a treat to see a father-son team, John and Win Lee, watch their first-year home-bred son of John’s great champion Spy Kill Pride prove worthy of his genes.  Pride’s Alibi promises to be a standout with a long career ahead of him as Fred Rayl gets a fresh start with a new arrangement.

On Monday afternoon at the National watching Solid Reward and White Powder Pete proved exciting, as Reward swept the course and scored five times in his first hour-and-a-half.  But the dreaded UPs descended, and at 2:25, Fred Robinson lifted him.  His ground race had been spectacular.  Next year the National will run on Saturday once more, shortening the trial, a welcome respite no doubt (Ben Franklin’s old saw about fish and guests after three days applies to field trials).

I did not make it to the Southeastern or Masters, but followed them closely via cell phone.  Luke Weaver called me breathless after Sam’s (Rowan’s Gunsmoke’s) early performance at Chickasaw, excited as a boy on Christmas morning.  The performance held, with Sam named Champion and Lester’s Thunderbird named Runner Up in a huge field of 98.  The next week at the Masters, Thunderbird was named Champion, quite a thrill for Lefty Henry and Ellen and Tommy Liesfield (I remember watching Tommy’s pointer bitch Sensation long ago set the record for most field-trial wins at 116 at Camp Pickett for handler Roy Manns).

There was an Elephant in the Room in field trials this season—the absence of Ferrel Miller as a competitor, and of his Champions Miller’s White Powder and Miller’s Date Line as competitors and sires.  Whether banning Ferrel was appropriate will be debated forever.  Banning his dogs from breeding is even more controversial, and this season demonstrated beyond doubt that banning them deprives the sport of the most prepotent sires since Miller’s Silver Bullett, who happens to be the most prepotent sire ever.  Enough said, except read The Imposter, a parable about unintended consequences.

The Impostor


Willie Gooch was high as a Georgia pine—not on booze or drugs, but on mental images of a derby he’d been working since March.  It was August now, with the first prairie trial just a week away.  Willie was on his cell phone from North Dakota to Robert French, the derby’s owner and Willie’s boss, about the paperwork he needed to enter the derby in that trial and the ones to follow.  Willie knew he had a winner, maybe Derby of the Year, but he couldn’t enter it unregistered.

French told Willie he’d be back to him in a few minutes, to stay off the phone while he dug up the paper in his plantation office, a five-minute walk from the Big House where he now sat before a bay window sipping single-malt Scotch and watching the sun set over the Mossy Swamp mill pond, the cypress leaves and Spanish moss above its dark waters glowing golden gossamer in the horizontal rays of dimming sunlight.
True to his word, French called Willie back ten minutes later.

“Got a pen?  Write this down.  Name, Mossy Swamp Sam, Registration Number 9978365, by Mossy Swamp Mobster out of Mossy Swamp Missie.  Whelped January 10, 2006,” French said.
A long silence followed.  Willie knew his derby Sam was not from a mating of those two dogs.  He’d broken them both.  They were wagon dogs on Mossy Swamp Plantation.  Their sires were trial dogs, yes, but his special derby didn’t show the characteristics of any of those dogs, not at all. Finally, Willie said,  “You send in a DNA sample with the papers for that registration?” “Yes,” French replied.  The tone of the “Yes” told Willie all he needed to know.

His derby Sam was an impostor and would never sire a litter.  He’d been honestly sold to French with notice he couldn’t be registered.  If his derby proved a winner, and Willie had no doubt it would, another dog at Mossy Swamp Plantation would have to breed any bitch whose owner wanted a pup from Sam.  The substitute suitor would be whatever pup from the mating of Mobster and Missie whose saliva sample Robert French had sent to the Field with Sam’s registration application bearing Sam’s markings.

Nothing more was said between Willie and Robert French that evening, except “Good night and good luck.”  Both men understood the charade that would have to follow if the derby to be entered as Mossy Swamp Sam proved a winner.  A policy of “Don’t ask—Don’t tell” would prevail between Willie and Robert French through all the days of Sam’s life.  If a request came to Willie for a breeding to Sam, he’d just refer it to Robert French.  That would no doubt prove awkward, unless Robert French placed the dog whose DNA had gone to the Field in Willie’s string as a passenger only, to occupy a dog box on the trailer and a chain on the string.  Then Willie could surreptitiously breed it in the trailer to bitches delivered to him for breeding to Sam.  That would directly involve Willie in the fraud, and Willie hoped Robert French would not do that.  On reflection, he expected Robert French would choose instead to declare Sam sterile or unavailable.  Robert French certainly didn’t need the stud fees, though Willie could sure use them.  But since Willie was a private trainer on salary for French, it wouldn’t be as bad as if Willie were training and handling “for the public” and depending on stud fees as part of his revenue stream.

* * *

Willie fell asleep in his chair watching satellite TV.  It was midnight when he woke up.  His scout John Bain was also asleep beside him in the other soft chair facing the TV.  Willie shook John awake, and he stumbled off to bed.  Then Willie walked out in the moonlight to the plastic barrel in the shelter break where Sam slept.  The derby heard his footsteps and came out of his barrel with tail wagging and licked Willie’s hand when he reached to scratch behind Sam’s ears.

As he walked back to the cabin from the shelter break, Willie hummed My Old Kentucky Home.  

The End

No matter one’s position on the banning of Ferrel Miller, one cannot deny he was the most successful breeder, developer, and handler since Jim Avent.  And like Jim Avent and for the same reasons, he is tops on the lists of most revered and most despised.  But in another category, he also ranks tops—as a teacher.  Look at the season’s record for proof of that in Gary Lester and the dogs he has bred and developed.  Those who thought their prospects in field trials were brightened by Ferrel’s departure have overlooked his protégés.


Appendix

Fishing with Luke and Mr. George


By Tom Word



Luke Weaver’s enthusiasm for pointing-dog field trials is well known.  His enthusiasm for fishing is a well-kept secret.  For a minimalist sort of fishing, that is – bream fishing, with a cane pole (all-be-it a high tech graphite one), and not from a boat, but rather from a chair, set on the bank beneath the shade of a pecan tree.

Recently, I had the pleasure of sharing a bream-fishing trip with Luke.  I flew early on Thursday morning to Atlanta, then drove fifty miles south to Jackson, where Luke’s State Farm office stands near the courthouse.  After viewing his “Wall of Shame” where snapshots from the sporting lives of Luke and his friends are pinned and meeting Luke's assistants, Carolyn Bowden and Angie Brooks, we drove five miles south to Luke’s home on his farm (Luke's other assistants, Judy Williams and Debbie Henning are away at a meeting in Macon).  A new tin roof graces Luke's home – the better to hear the rain in the night – "Good sleeping insurance," says Luke.

Into Luke’s red crew-cab Dodge pickup, we heave our gear and set out southwest for Hurtsboro, carefully avoiding interstates.  We pass antebellum and Victorian plantation houses in varying states of decay or restoration, white fences marking the places born of king cotton’s pre boll weevil heyday and redeemed by the back-to-the-land longings of Atlanta’s prosperous doctors and entrepreneurs.  Occasionally, saddle horses appear in lush spring-green pastures, but gone are the cotton and the mules.

Our drive is relaxing, for we both have the farm boy’s love of looking at land – you don’t have to own it to enjoy it.  We cross the Chattahoochee at Columbus, and in no time, we’re at Collier Smith’s kennels, his dog pens ingeniously set on out-sloping round floors of concrete, partially covered by a high circular roof.  The design makes cleaning and feeding quick work from the center.  A host of noisy pointers greet us, but the kennel man tells us Collier is away.  Luke recalls visiting here in Herman’s day, when the kennels held several hundred trial and gun dogs; I recall being here in 1973 for a seminar with Herman, Collier, and Rod, and seeing Flaming Star, the undisputed king of the kennel.

We forge on to Hurtsboro and stop in the feed store for crickets, Luke’s secret weapon in the bream wars.  The owner says the biggest-bream contest is open, the biggest so far a few ounces over a pound (Luke won second place last year).  We drive the streets of the charming town, checking out the murals of sporting scenes painted on all the business buildings by a good local artist.  (I pass Luke’s test by identifying one of three dogs on point on the feed-store wall as a dropper.)

After stopping at a filling station for ice, we drive to Luke’s secret fishing lake, set in a beautiful grove of pecan trees.  Twenty-seven acres of calm, cool water.  We put our suitcases in the house trailer where we will sleep and set up on the bank to fish.  We will keep only real big ones and those that swallow the hook.

Soon I realize why Luke is willing to drive the considerable distance from Jackson to Hurtsboro just to fish.  They are biting, and they are big, some near a pound.  The small ones are experts at stealing the cricket at the end of the line, six inches from a lead shot, four feet below the float.  Luke catches five to my one; he is a professional bream fisherman.

Our talk is easy, of field-trial dogs, horses, friends; of hunting dogs of our youth – hounds, beagles, setters, and pointers; of bird hunts when we were young and quail were plentiful, and of our hunting companions of old, Luke’s in Georgia and my in Virginia.  A local couple, plastic worm fishing for bass from a Jon boat, report their catch and the top weight (like us, they are returning all but those that have swallowed the hook).

We move across the dam to the shade of a pecan and fish farther out from the bank with spinning tackle (“Those in a boat try to fish as close to the shore as they can; those on the bank try to fish as far out as they can,” Luke quotes Mr. George Moreland, who will join us Friday morning, his first outing since hip replacement surgery.)

We stop at suppertime and drive to Union Springs to eat, finding there a family-run Mexican restaurant across from the Greenway Motel that proves to be excellent.  We are back to the trailer for bed before dark.

Next morning, we dive to the City Diner for an Alabama breakfast of eggs, bacon, grits, and toast (whole wheat, Luke orders, but is not surprised when white toast is delivered. – "That’s whole wheat toast here,” Luke says, knowing what to expect.)

On the diner’s walls hang photos of dogs and field trialers, walking-horse winners, and rodeo winners, adult and juvenile.  One photo shows the Dixie Puppy Classic winners, posed by George Moreland and Herman Smith, with the judges and club president Ed Mack Farrior standing behind.  (I will remember that one forever, for it’s the last time I will gaze at an image of Ed Mack during his lifetime – he died this very day in nearby Union Springs.)  John Williams joins us for a chat, and we discuss the price and supply of cattle (high and scarce) and of local houses (low and plentiful).  Breakfast downed, we stop by the feed store to re-cricket, only to find they are out.  “He’s (cricket man) due before noon, but I’m clean out right now,” says the store man.  We’ll make do with yesterday’s leftover crickets.

When we get back to the lake, Mr. George has arrived, and we quickly set up to fish.  He’s a bit restricted in his movement, but otherwise looks good, and his wit is sharp – he and Luke waste no time trading barbs as sharp as their hooks.  We put up a dollar each for the mandatory biggest bream contest, and Ed Schwan, fellow fisherman of Columbus, who has a place nearby, puts his scale on the tailgate.  Serious fishing begins, Mr. George using night crawlers.

“Tell us about when you went in the possum-raising business,” Luke prods Mr. George.  (Luke says Mr. George is a possum chef unequaled.)

“Well, I read in a magazine that some folks have organized the Purebred Possum Breeders Association and have perfected breeding them in cages.  But you need a good stud possum, and over at Clanton, Alabama a fellow has a big operation and a famous stud possum named Bouregard (“How big is Bouregard, Mr. George?” Luke asks.  “They said about sixty pounds, I think,” Mr. George answers, half seriously.)

“Well, we drive over to Clanton where Bouregard is supposed to be standing at stud – Mr. Ed Breau of South Carolina is with me – he’s real interested in the purebred possum-breeding business.  ‘Course he’s heard they are the only mammal with polyunsaturated fat, will solve the world hunger problem.  We get there, and the fellow tells us he’s shipped Bouregard to Florida to breed, has no stud possums for sale, but says there’s a lady over in another Alabama town with a son of Bouregard and several studs for sale.  We drive over there, and sure enough, this young woman has a stud possum on a collar and leash, sells us a young stud possum, and we head back for Coney Lake.

“We’ve caught us a bunch of female possums we’ve got in wire cages in the barn, and in a few weeks, I go out one morning to check on ‘em, and sure enough, one has young possums in her cage – but I look close, and she’s eating her young!  I am disgusted and turn ‘em all loose, and they scurry out the barn, and that was the end of our possum breeding venture,” says Mr. George.

“Tell us about the time you bought the horse from the Indian up in Canada,” Luke prods Mr. George.

“Well, I hear this Indian has a horse he wants to sell.  I drive over to where he’s supposed to be, and he’s got a team pulling a wagon, and says he wants to sell one of them.  We get a saddle out of my trailer, and the Indian takes the harness off one of the horses, and we throw the saddle on the horse – it’s a mustang, I can see from the government brand on its jaw.  I say to the Indian, ‘get on him.’  ‘Oh no,' says the Indian.  So I tell my scout to get on him, and he bucks a few times and then settles into a walk that’s as smooth and fast as you could ask for.  So I buy the horse – paid $150, I think.  You could buy lots of horses for that up there then.

“We get him back to our training grounds, and I get on him, and we turn a dog loose, and I ride across the road and decide I’ll see what he’s got for a canter.  I give him a spur, and he don’t do nothing but keep walking – he could really walk, smooth and fast as you’d want.  Then I spurred him again real hard, and he stopped and put his head down between his knees, his nose to the ground, and I knew what was coming.  I grabbed his mane, and he commenced to buck sure enough, like a rodeo bronco, and I hang on for dear life.  When he finally slows down a minute, I slip off and lead him back toward the cabin, and Walter Lee (my scout) sees me coming, leading the horse.”

“What he do, Mr. George, throw you?”  Walter Lee asks.

“Nah,” I say.  “Come here and ride him.”

“No suh.  I ain’t goin to ride that horse.  I know he’s done somethin' got you off leading him,” Walter Lee says.  “And sure enough, he wouldn’t get on that horse no matter what I said.  We never did get him to canter, but he could sure walk.

“Another time, I bought a horse up there that I learned afterwards had been a top rodeo bucking horse.  He would buck once when you got on him, then go on – he was a real good horse.  Later that summer, a fellow I didn’t know drove up to our camp and asked if I had the horse, and I said yes, and he said he’d driven all the way from Calgary to see me ride him, said that horse had been the top bronco horse on the Canadian rodeo circuit; he couldn’t believe we were riding him.  He was cold backed – get my scout to ride him a few minutes at the start of every day to top him off for me.”

“What’s the best bird dog you ever had, Mr. George?” Luke asks.

“Well, I don’t rightly know . . . .” 

“How about Judy?  Judy Warhoop?  You and Mr. Herbert Ingram owned her, didn't you?”

“Yes, and well, she was a good one.  Maybe the best.  Then there was Pineland Kate.  Fast as a greyhound.  At the Masters – I forget the year (sometime in the early 70s) – she was sailing, and my scout or I kept finding her on point dead at the front.  It was two minutes to go, and I rode up on her, and she’d hit birds just flying and slid to keep from knocking ‘em, and ended up flat on her belly – she hadn’t pointed and dropped, mind you – she’d skidded and couldn’t help being down with her back legs up under her.  I’m a little ahead of the judge, and he hasn't seen her yet, so I get my canteen.  It's drizzling rain and I've got on a big poncho.  I spread it out and walk up to Kate like a waddling hen, hoping the judge won't see her.  I lift her up and start to water her.  The judge rides up, says "Time’s up", and about then, the covey gets up, and the judge says, “If you hadn’t stopped her for water, that would likely have been another find for Kate.”

'Guess you're right,' I said.  She’d had eight already – maybe nine - and they were enough – she got first.  Yes, Kate was a good one“ (the year was 1970).

Soon the bream competition has heated up, and contenders are being weighed every few minutes.  Luke establishes the lead with one “just a hair over a pound.”  That fish fends off all challengers, and when we head back to Jackson midday, leaving Mr. George and his companion John Richardson still fishing, Luke has collected the pot in the biggest-fish contest.

We get back to Jackson in time to stop by Luke’s daughter, Lisa's, to meet Luke’s namesake grandson, age seven.  Little Luke rode several days with his grandfather at the Southeastern and Masters this year and loved it.  He’s already placed a pup second in the Old Atlanta Trial Puppy Stake.  (Luke's granddaughter, Ivy, Laura's child, who is two years younger than Little Luke, won first, a fact that's not to be mentioned around Little Luke).

Back at Luke’s farm, we ride through the pasture to inspect Luke’s horses, happily grazing in knee deep grass.  He has two handsome black Percheron fillies, which he plans to breed to “a real pacey walking horse stud.”  I pay my respects to Cochese, my favorite, perhaps the strongest, smoothest and (blessedly) calmest horse in field trials.

We load Luke’s beagles in the truck and head for his favorite spot for a rabbit chase, between two schoolhouses.  The seven are soon searching and baying, but a rainstorm cuts our chase short.  

With Carol as driver, we go to town for supper, good Cajun shrimp in Tillie's, a neighborhood spot doing a big Friday night business.

I have an 8:50 flight Saturday morning out of Atlanta and plan to sneak out without waking Carol and Luke in the morning, but Luke is up before I am, and at 5:00 a.m., we are at The Mason Jar, a wonderful old fashioned family restaurant run by Bobby Mackey, for fresh bream we caught the day before (sadly it has since closed due to Bobby's poor health).  

I get to Atlanta in time to catch an hour-earlier flight than the one I'm booked on.  A great visit with a special friend.

The Purina Awards

Last weekend (June 9–11, 2006), I attended the Purina Awards celebration at College Station, Texas.  It was my first, and it brought a flood of memories.  On Friday night’s banquet , Rick Furney received the All-Age Handler of the Year Award, and Miller’s On Line, handled by Rick and owned by Chip McEwen and Rick’s brother Mike, received the All-Age Dog of the Year Award.  This was Rick’s third handler award, and the most touching moment of the weekend came when Rick presented the handsome bolo tie to his scout, Scott Beeler, acknowledging the crucial role Scott played in Rick’s and On Line’s success.

A great All-Age performance is truly a team effort, the team being the dog, the handler and scout, and their mounts.  Each of the five plays a vital role and in the process presents a classic spectacle, to my taste the greatest spectacle in sport.  Our tiny fraternity understands the preceding sentence, but the vast majority of humanity has no clue, and never will, and perhaps it’s just as well.  The all-age game is not for the masses, just for us few odd-ball characters, the men (and women) “that don’t fit in,” as Robert Service said and Freddie Epp loves to quote.

Rick Furney’s career as a professional “for the public” handler was just getting started when I met him at the Florida Championship.  He won that year with House’s Shady Lady, with a performance I can see clearly today in memory.  Joe Walker and Nathan Cottrell were judging, and Nathan especially admired the way Rick rode slow right up front and let Lady do her thing, swinging through the country, keeping the front and reaching when it mattered.  Lady had her third find near time on a hillside on the left side of the course.  Her birds lifted as Rick rode from the course path toward her, and the judges saw them.  This was fortunate, for Lady great dog that she was and still Rick’s favorite, had a hole that Rick had to contend with.  After two finds, she was inclined to loosen when Rick flushed on subsequent ones.  By getting up on their own before Rick and the judges arrived at Lady’s stand, the birds spared her the test.

When I called Rick in Leesburg a few days later to interview him for the report, he was candid about the struggle he was having putting together sufficient dogs and owners to make campaigning full time feasible.  But Rick loved the game, and his determination has paid off, as he has risen to the top ranks and stayed there, winning the National twice now with Law’s High Noon and On Line, as well as many other important championships.  His win this season of the Invitational was especially gratifying for him, for that win has been a long-time goal.

Rick began life as the son of a legendary plantation manager, Coy Furney, who oversaw the huge Tallassee Plantation at Albany for Raymond Evans of Cleveland (Tallassee is now Avalon, Southern Heritage and Chickasaw, having been divided upon its sale by the Evans Family).  Mike would become the farming manager and Rick the hunting manager under their father.  Their boyhoods were ideal, for Mr. Evans understood that boys were going to hunt and fish and so he allotted them some of Tallassee’s remoter acreage as their territory.  They made ample us of it.  As they grew toward manhood, neighboring friends, Robin Gates and Bubba Moreland, would bring dogs to work on Tallassee.  What a place to be boys.

Through the years, I have watched Rick many times at the Florida, the Continental, the Invitational, and the Southeastern.  Some of the most memorable performances by his dogs did not produce wins.  Crude’s Velvet had a spectacular forty-one minutes in the Florida, but the judges deemed her absence the first nineteen too much.  It was a decision many besides Rick disagreed with.  At the Continental, Laws High Noon had a spectacular qualifying hour, but was not selected for the finals.  One of the judges deeming a slight bow at flush on one of four finds disqualifying, another decision many riding disagreed with.  High Noon was winning the Invitational with two sparking finds in the first hour of the final two hours when he slipped away; Rick’s riding across the front to return a bracemate to its handler was perhaps a good deed that did not go unpunished, for that’s when High Noon took his leave.

Over the years, Rick’s teenage sons have gone to Canada with him each summer, and he counts that “quality time” with them a great blessing.  They are grown now, and he and his wife Patty have a condo at Panama City where she can enjoy the water and still handle her job as National Sales Manager for Clear Channel Radio via the internet.  It’s great to see the Furneys be able to enjoy the success they have worked so hard for.  Rick’s attitude about judges’ decisions is one all owners and handlers can profit from.  “I win some I didn’t think I’d won, and don’t get some I thought I had won.  That’s just part of it.  When a trial is over, I put it out of my mind and go on down the road.  You’ll drive yourself crazy trying to second guess judges.”