Not too long ago a New York gossip columnist reported with smug satisfaction that the August Belmont family was definitely on the way Out. The golden era of Newport-New York society had come to an end, along with private railroad cars and marble mansions. Unless a miracle happened, predicted the pundit, not even a racetrack and a bevy of hotels, parks and plazas bearing the Belmont name could save it from oblivion.
No one is suggesting that the prescribed miracle has now materialized in the form of a 5-year-old, black Labrador retriever named Super Chief, but no one can deny either that "Supy," as the dog is called, deserves some of the credit for putting the Belmont name back in headlines. Last month, in the mountain community of McCall, Idaho, August Belmont IV made the tallest headlines in the field-trial world by winning the 1967 National Amateur Retriever championship.
To shy, unassuming Augie Belmont, his triumph with Supy was every bit as heady as some of his grandfather's grandest horse-racing victories. But unlike his grandfather, the younger Belmont had neither the advantages of a vast stable of professional trainers behind him, nor even a jockey to help. He guided Supy to the championship singlehanded, and the old man would have been proud.
The National Amateur Retriever championship is the premier prize in retrieverdom. To most retriever owners, especially to those with only one or a few dogs, it is an achievement more glorious than winning the National Open, an event generally dominated by professionals and big-string kennels. Even John Olin, whose Nilo Kennels has won three National Opens, never managed to win a National Amateur, although he has come close.
The McCall championship, the climax of more than 120 AKC-licensed retriever trials run across the country in the preceding 12 months, was open only to amateur handlers, but there was nothing amateurish about most of the dog handling at the event. Competitors such as Roger Vasselais of New York, Guy Burnett of Montana, Bing Grunwald of Nebraska, Harold Mack Jr. and Eloise Heller of California, to name just a few of the 52 present at McCall this year, hold their own with the best professional handlers in the business.
Out of an estimated 183,124 registered retrievers in the U.S. and Canada, only 72 succeeded in qualifying for the 1967 National, and only 60 of these dogs actually ran. There were 30 field champions (championships won in Open competition against both professional and amateur handlers), 42 amateur field champions, two former National Amateur champions, one former Canadian National Open champion, and three dogs that currently rank among the alltime point winners.
There is little difference between the caliber of dogs at the National Amateur and those at the National Open and no difference in the way the two trials are run and judged. Each consists of 10 series, or tests, involving land, water or a combination of both, which measure the dog's ability to meet and master various situations he might encounter in the field. They also measure his ability and willingness to take directions from a handler.
The performance a dog turns in at any trial is a combination of his training, his rapport with the handler and his desire to do a good job. An accomplished professional is an expert at determining exactly the proper balance between all three and at maintaining it under all conditions. Most amateurs, on the other hand, are rarely as consistent in their moods or manner. Such inconsistencies are invariably reflected in the way a dog works.
"I have seen dogs that looked great when run by professionals," says Rex Carr, one of the best-known retriever trainers on the West Coast, "and I have seen the same dogs do miserable jobs when run by their owners. It was hard to believe they were the same dogs. This is why amateur trials are such a challenge, even with the most highly trained dog.
"Most owners," Carr adds, "have no idea how much more than just training is involved in this sport. They think because a dog has been trained by a professional it should handle the same way for them that it handles for the trainer. What they forget is that the dog may be trained but they are not."