The Making of a Champion

(Shortly after Wild Apple Jack won the Grand National in 2007 I wrote the following back page  editorial for Field Trial Magazine.  Jack is now nine and headed towards the end of a great career.  It will still be a few weeks before we start getting Jack ready to go to the Invitational so I thought those of you who didn’t see this when it was first written might find it an interesting read)

The late Bob Wehle devoted an entire book to his National Shooting Dog Champion Elhew Snakefoot and Snakefoot: The Making of a Champion is definitely an interesting read.  I don’t have any pretensions about becoming the next Bob Wehle, but I figure if he can devote an entire book to his National Champion, I’m not getting too carried away by filling up the back page of the magazine with a few words about my Grand National Grouse Champion Wild Apple Jack.  And besides, my story and my goal here is a little different than Wehle’s.  I figure I’m a lot more like the most of the readers of the magazine than Wehle was – although he was a subscriber.
            My first bird dog was a Brittany and when I placed him third in a local American Field sanctioned walking derby stake I was hooked.  I was also extremely impressed with the big white setter male that had placed first in the derby.  When I saw him on point, he stood majestically as a gentle breeze fluttered the long feathering of his tail (really!).  He finished his half hour with crimson splattered flanks from the blood seeping from his tail.  I loved my Brittany and ended up learning more than he did by the time he was broke, however, the image of that setter and the ones run by some of the guys I was getting to know here in northern New Hampshire had me thinking I really wanted a long-tailed dog.
            I was soon offered a male puppy from a breeding that would end up producing numerous cover dog champions.  Stokely’s Diablo Buddy was everything I wanted in a setter – strong on the ground, stylish on his birds, and driven to find the next one.  He placed numerous times as a puppy and derby despite being born and registered in a September litter.  When he won the John Burnham Grouse Classic shortly after his third birthday I thought he was on the way to becoming a champion.  Unfortunately, he was dead from bone cancer before he turned four.
            I thought numerous other setters would get the job done including 2X R/U Ch. Stokely’s Mikey D.  However, I ran into more problems than successes, two young dogs I tried to develop turned out to be deaf in one ear, another turned out to be the dumbest bird dog I have ever come in contact with.  In frustration, I turned to my friend George Tracy and bought a Hamilton’s Blue Diamond bitch that was thrilling to watch run and always found birds, no matter where you cut her loose.  But was wound so tight she rarely put together a 60 minute performance without doing something to knock herself out of contention.  This included a performance at the New York State Grouse Championship a couple of years ago where with less than two minutes left after three or four perfect finds and a picture book race that would have earned her the title, she ran over a brood of grouse and chased them like a puppy barking with joy as she did so.
            Then in 2001, I was out in Texas and one of the guys in the lease had an Elhew puppy that Bob Wehle had given him.  She was not working out for him and he didn’t know what he would tell Wehle.  I spent some time with Lady, as he called her, during the trip just doing some yardwork and soon suggested that I was the solution to his dilemma.  About a month later, I got a call and was told that Bob wanted me to have Lady under two conditions, one, I couldn’t sell her and two, I couldn’t change her name: Elhew Liebotschaner.
            Lady had learned one thing in Texas, and that was to run.  It was just before the end of her derby season before I finally was able to get her around a half hour walking course and get her qualified.  The next fall, Andy Cook showed up on the cover dog circuit with Wynot Ace, a half-Elhew/half-Guardrail bred derby, that proceeded to win the National Amateur Grouse Championship and the International Amateur Woodcock Championship.  When I saw the dog run, I knew I had found the perfect stud dog to complement Lady who was due in season towards the end of October.
            That first breeding, and the two subsequent repeat breedings, produced seven puppies.  The litter was born in the early days of January in a whelping box under the table in my office.  It was great entertainment to just sit by the whelping box and watch the puppies change each day.  For some reason there was one puppy that from the day his eyes opened seemed to bond with me more than the others.  A few of the puppies I let go at seven weeks, but this male and two of his brothers stayed around until spring arrived.  Despite promising attributes in the other two puppies, when I had to make up my mind there was no question, the puppy I called Jack (his father’s Ace and I couldn’t bring myself to have a dog named King despite watching every episode of Sergeant Preston when I was a kid) was staying with me.
            As Jack developed my hopes quietly began to climb.  When he ran in the Miss Leslie Anderson Derby Classic at nine months of age and was named runner-up he received copious ink in the American Field from the stake manager and reporter Ron Ashfield who ended his report by saying, “While Jack’s placement on this occasion was the first of his young career, the spirit and maturity that he displayed in garnering runner-up laurels bodes extremely well for an exciting future.”  It seemed it would be only a matter of time before he broke through into the elite ranks of cover dog champions.  He knocked at the door a number of times and finally broke through in early November at the Grand National which was run this year only 15 miles from home in the Kilkenny Area of the White Mountain National Forest. 
            Much of the cover in Kilkenny is past its prime and many of the courses have been re-routed to try and get the dogs into still viable bird cover.  Everything has to come into line to win at this level – you have to get the right course, at the right time of day, the weather has to cooperate, and a good bracemate helps.  And most important, when the moon and stars fall into line, you have to have the dog that will take advantage of the opportunity.  For one magical hour on the Lonesome Ridge course, Wild Apple Jack put on the show the judges had been looking for and I had been elusively trying to be a part of for around 20 years.  Most of the hour, I was able to keep my mouth shut and let Jack do what he had been born and trained to do.  He ran to the logical extent of the course with speed and style and his one grouse find was perfection with the dog staying locked high and tight until I collared him.
            My journey to owning, training, and handling a national champion has been long and hard but joyous.  Despite setbacks and frustrations along the way, I still love to watch an exciting performance whether I’m judging, reporting, just in the gallery or blowing the whistle as I was with Jack a few weeks ago.  Snakefoot was quickly retired to stud after his victory in the Shooting Dog National.  Hopefully, Jack and I still have more to accomplish and besides there are a couple of his little brothers out in the kennel who need to be brought along.

Posted in Current News.

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