The National Championship: A History

by National Championship Reporter
William S. Smith

It began in West point, Mississippi in 1896 with the boast “my dog is better than your dog.” Among the bird dog men of that day the challenge was too great to ignore and the National Championship was born. Count Gladstone IV for owner/handler Jim Avent was given the nod over Topsy’s Rod after a second series for the title. Mr. Avent received $300.00 and a silver Championship Cup for the win.

One hundred and twenty years later the National Championship is still conducted in order to name the best field trial bird dog. This year, 2016, marks the 120th year since the introductory running and the event has only been cancelled four times; in 1897, 1938, 1944, and 1965. The first renewal of the National was contested on the grounds at New Albany, Miss. in 1898 and returned to West Point, Miss. in 1899. The U.S. Grounds once located south of Grand Junction, Tennessee hosted the National in 1900 and 1901 and again in 1912. The National would utilize the U.S. Grounds for the last time in 1914. The National was first contested on the Ames Plantation in 1902 and continued there through the 1909 running.  It has been run on the Ames every year it has been held since 1915. The only other venue to host the National was Rogers Springs, Tennessee in 1910 and 1911.

The purse is substantially larger these days, being over 60 times the amount of that inaugural running, but the contest is basically the same with the exception that a runner-up is no longer named but was named in some years between 1908 and 1933. In 1908 a setter male, Danfield, was the first named runner-up. In 1933 Superlette, a pointer bitch, was the last runner-up to be named. If there ever was a hard luck dog that competed in the National it was the setter male, Powhatan. He was never able to claim the championship, but was named runner-up three times in 1910, 1911, and 1913.

The National is the Super Bowl for bird dogs. Some owners and handlers have been fortunate to win this much sought after event relatively early in their quest. Others have toiled in the trenches for many years before their efforts were rewarded with a victory in the National. While others never realize their goal. It is a game of the highest highs and the lowest lows. It is a game of skill with luck playing a large part. But in the end it is about the dogs. It takes an exceptional dog to navigate the three hours that are required in all kinds of weather and to finish still running strong. Conditioning is of the utmost and all credit should be given to the handlers who are in charge of preparing these canine athletes for this grueling performance. Throughout the long season these handlers are diligent to see that their charges are given the best of care in order that their potential can and will be achieved. We would be remiss not to give recognition to the owners because without the owners there would not be a National Championship. They are the ones who make it possible for the handlers and their dogs to compete. It takes two to tango but it takes three to make a team on the All-Age circuit. Congratulations to the owners and handlers who have qualified for the 2016 National Championship.

Hobart Ames was born on August 21, 1865 in North Easton, Massachusetts. He was born into one of the most wealthy, influential, and prestigious families of that time. His business savvy added to his family’s already great wealth. He was a man admired for his moral values and his integrity. He was an avid bird hunter and a man who valued a good bird dog. He was one of the catalyst that brought the National Championship into existence.

The National Championship stands as a memorial to Hobart and Julia Colony Ames. The trial was of such importance to them both that after Hobart’s demise, Julia created the Hobart Ames Foundation. It was her wish that the Foundation would ensure the continuation of the National. Reporter Joe Walker in his account of the 1994 National stated what he believed to be Mr. Ames vision of the National when he wrote:  “The National Championship is an endurance event which seeks to glorify the ideal field trial dog, the finest of quail performers, one with all the essential natural qualifications. The dog must be expertly trained and have had field experience so that he works in the interest of the gun. Main emphasis has always been on ‘subservience to the gun.’ This connotes a desire to find birds, locate game accurately, and give ready and cheerful handling response.” He went on to say: “There are some who have the impression that restricted range is necessary; that is far from the case. In fact, Hobart Ames, who sponsored the stake for so many years, liked to see a dog reach out to birdy places in open country, but did not want a dog to pass promising concealments merely for the sake of distance. In an early expression of views the originators of the stake stressed that the purpose of the trial was to bring out superior bird dogs with stamina so necessary to a useful dog.” (Am. Field, March 12, 1994)  Mr. Ames’ idea of how a dog should perform, the Amesian Standard, is still the yardstick that is used today in judging field trials.

AMESIAN STANDARD

The dog under consideration must have and display great bird sense. He must show perfect work on both coveys and singles. He must be able to quickly to determine between foot and body scent. He must use his brain, eyes, and nose to the fullest advantage and hunt the likely places on the course. He must possess speed, style, range, style, character, courage, and stamina—and good manners, always.  He must hunt the birds and not the handler hunt the dog. No line or path runner is acceptable. He must be well broken, and the better his manners, the more clearly he proves his sound training. Should he ;lose a little in class, as expressed in speed and range, he can make up for this, under fair judgment, in a single piece of superior bird work, or in sustained demonstration of general behavior. He must be bold, snappy, and spirited. His range must be to the front or to either side, but never behind. He must be regularly and habitually pleasing governable and must know when to turn and keep his handler’s course in view, and at all times keep uppermost in his mind the finding and pointing of birds for his handler.

Hobart and his wife, Julia, were on a cruise in 1898 when they met Mr. & Mrs. Herman B. Duryea, who happened to be on the same cruise. Ames and Duryea discovered during their conversations that they shared a common interest. That interest being bird hunting and bird dogs. The previous year Duryea had purchased several thousand acres of land in Hickory Valley, Tennessee at the recommendation of his friend, James Avent. During the cruise Duryea continued to extoll the virtues of the pristine quail country around Hickory Valley. He most likely informed Ames that there were tracts of acres available for sale in close proximity to his plantation. The seed was planted and the Ames Plantation was established in 1901 when Ames made his initial purchase of a house and 400 acres from the descendants of John Walker Jones. Ames was about 36 years old at that time. He would continue to acquire land when it became available and the plantation would eventually encompass some 24,000 plus acres.

Ames and Edward Dexter were distant neighbors in Massachusetts. Dexter owned Charlottesville Kennels located in Virginia. Dexter’s intentions were to improve the pointer breed through selective breeding. In partnership with his kennel manager, Cuthbert E. Buckle, they were rewarded for their efforts. Rip Rap, Jingo, Mainstay, and Young Rip Rap were four of the foundation sires that the kennel produced. At 63 years of age Dexter was in ill health and he desired to sell the Charlottesville Kennels, but he wanted to ensure that the kennel would continue to strive to enhance the pointer lines. Ames bought the kennel in the spring of 1899 with the understanding that he would continue with Dexter’s vision. Disaster struck in 1900 when rabies almost totally wiped out the kennel. Sixteen of the country’s most promising pointers fell victim to the disease along with most of the setter occupants. One of the setter victims was the bitch, Daisy Craft, who had amassed 11 field trial placements. Not wanting to risk another disaster, Ames sought to move the kennel out of Virginia.  With the establishment of the Ames Plantation in Grand Junction, Tennessee, the decision was made to relocate there. Cuthbert Buckle would also relocate to the Ames becoming the first manager of the Ames.

Since 1895 Ames had field trial dogs in the string of professional handler David Rose but after relocating his kennel to Tennessee, Cuthbert Buckle would handle Ames’ dogs in field trial competition.

On January 23, 1905 the National began on the Ames Plantation. The competition would be won by one of Hobart Ames’ contenders and as a result of that victory there would be a potential lasting negative bearing on the setter line. Nine of the country’s best setters made up the field. Weather on the opening morning was clear with a slight breeze. Jessie Rodfield’s Count Gladstone, Portia, Prince Rodney, and Pioneer ran that first day but did not take advantage of the weather conditions as time would tell. Jessie Rodfield’s Count Gladstone was said to have had the best performance of the four. The weather changed drastically on Tuesday morning when Alambagh and Tony Man were loosed in inclement weather. The storm intensified into blizzard conditions that were described as before unseen in west Tennessee. Both dogs went on to card numerous bevy finds and frequently both located singles in spite of the raging snow storm. Tony Man had chased on a couple of occasions and also knocked a covey, but he finished still strong and going away. Alambagh’s battle with the weather took its toll and his last quarter hour betrayed his exhaustion. The afternoon running was cancelled. Wednesday morning the temperature had plunged below zero and the day’s running was cancelled. McKinley, Leather Stockings, and Victor Okaw completed the first series on Thursday but none impressed the judges. Alambagh and Jessie Rodfield’s Count Gladstone were called back for a second series. Shortly after breakaway Jessie was spied standing far to the front. When a relocation was attempted, Jessie knocked the covey and hit the ground. On Jessie’s next stand he tried to catch a bird when it flew close to his head. Point was called for Alambagh standing a good distance to the front. Alambagh was rock solid when Buckle flushed and shot. The dogs were ordered up and the four year old Alambagh was declared the winner.  Then the outcry commenced. The complaints were that Alambagh had an unfair advantage because he was worked on the Ames by Buckle and knew how to run the grounds and probably knew where the birds were. The laughter in the halls of the manor house quickly subsided into silence. For Hobart Ames the accusations of taking an unfair advantage were tantamount to accusing him of dishonesty. He was known as a man of character and high ideals and was insulted profoundly by these allegations. As a result of the criticism he made the decision not to run another of his dogs in the National Championship for as long as it was run on the Ames Plantation.

Alambagh was not offered to the public after his victory. He was bred exclusively to Hobart Ames’ personal hunting dogs. The victims of that decision were those who would have bred to Alambagh and Alambagh himself because he never competed in another field trial. Hobart Ames was also impacted because Alambagh would be his solitary National Champion.

The decision to quit the National was a bitter pill to swallow, but Hobart Ames was a man who stood by his convictions and he did not relent.  In 1911 the venue of the National would relocate from the Ames to Rogers Springs, Tennessee and an Ames’ entry would once again compete for the title.  Before the running of the National Hobart purchased the setter bitch, Monora, who was the 1910 National Champion, and the promising young setter male, Powhatan. Buckle would once again handle the Ames’ entries. Judges H.S. Bevan, Captain Thomas Bond, and J.T. Jones did not witness a performance that they deemed worthy of a national champion and decided on a second series. They called back Powhatan with another setter male, Eugene M, who was declared the National Champion after a 3 hour and 7 minute brace. Powhatan’s performance earned him his second consecutive runner-up in the National.