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."
Rex Carr is unique among professionals because he never handles a dog in a trial. Rather, he specializes in training amateurs to handle their own dogs. He will not accept any dog for training unless its owner is also willing to train with it, and to train seriously. Such training is no picnic. Carr expects as much from his pupils as he does from himself. But if training with Carr is rough, the rewards of such training are rich. Those of his pupils like Augie Belmont, who have managed to stick out the early-to-bed, early-to-rise routine that Carr insists upon, have also managed to win some of the top prizes.
For Belmont, Carr's uncompromising training demands are further complicated by the fact that the Belmont home in Syosset, N.Y. is nearly 3,000 miles away from Carr's in Modesto, Calif. At least six times a year for the past several years this has necessitated Belmont's packing wife, dog, baggage and dog biscuits into a commercial airliner to make the cross-country trip. "The whole challenge of this sport for me." Belmont explains, "is working and running a dog myself. I don't just want my dog to win a trophy. I want to help him win it. Most trainers would not even attempt the kind of job Rex takes on. It is a lot harder to train the handler than it is to train the dog, but the handler and dog that are trained together really know each other. They become a team that is working for the same goal. It's work all right, but it is also the real pleasure of field trialing."
There are times, Belmont's neighbors have mused, when the pleasures seem somewhat obscured by the perversities of the whole business—early on a wet, winter morning, for example, when the Belmont backyard is deep in mud and neither sun nor temperature has given any indication of rising. Why, the neighbors have wondered, would anyone forsake a warm bed and an extra cup of coffee before catching the 8:02 to run around in rain-sogged clothes blowing a whistle at an equally rain-sogged dog?
"I guess a lot of people down here would not understand it," Augie says, glancing sheepishly around his conservative office in a New York City investment-banking concern, "but that hour or two with Supy before taking the train each morning is the best part of the day for us.
"Supy is kind of special," he adds. "Even the way I got him was unusual. I didn't buy him. He was given to me by a fellow in Grand Rapids from whom I had bought a young dog a couple of years before. That first dog turned out unsound, and I guess the fellow worried about it. One day he called and said he was sending a pup from the same breeding to make up for the other one. Supy was a house dog until he was 5 months old. Then I sent him to Rex to see what he thought of him. Rex agreed to take us both on, and that's how we started."
There was no question among the almost 1,000 spectators who watched the two of them run at the 1967 National Amateur Retriever championship that Supy and August Belmont were indeed a team.