There is a continent of difference between the bay-swept marshes of Delaware and the dust-swept deserts of Nevada, but a 6-year-old black Labrador named Spirit Lake Duke proved to a gallery of more than 400 at the 1959 national field trial stakes outside Reno this week that, to a champion, geography doesn't matter.
Duke, who two years ago won the 1957 Retriever Championship in Dover, Del., stormed through a field of 44 of the nation's top contenders for the biggest of all retriever prizes to recapture the national championship. In so doing, he became only the third dog in the 19-year history of the trials to win the trophy more than once, thus joining Shed of Arden and King Buck in the most select triumvirate in retrieverdom.
For Duke, owned by Mrs. George Murnane of Syosset, N.Y., the path to victory was as difficult a challenge as the rugged thornbush country of this year's trial grounds. During the four-day running of the national stakes he faced some of the most formidable competition in his four-and-a-half-year career. The dogs he beat—36 Labradors, five goldens and two Chesapeakes—were rated the best in the country. Among them was last year's national champion, Nilo's Possibility. Each dog had won a minimum of seven championship points, including at least one first place, in major trials this year to qualify for the nationals. At the trial each had to run a series of 10 tests on both land and water to be considered for the prize. These tests under normal trial conditions are exacting. In the rugged Nevada terrain they were doubly so, for burrs and thorns cut into the dogs' feet and the bitter scent of sage vied sharply with the scent of birds.
If the cover was only adequate, the cool, clear Reno weather more than compensated for it. Unhampered by the traditional rain-soaked cold of many retriever trials, the dogs ran with brisk vigor, and the gallery watched in comfort. There is a mood which prevails at retriever stakes, and particularly at the nationals, that is unique. It is a kind of quiet excitement, tense and expectant but perfectly controlled and rarely vocal. This atmosphere absorbs even the stranger to retriever circles. Normally exuberant Reno residents, playing host to the nationals for the first time, were quick to sense the silent concentration of the gallery and, like old followers of the sport, softly applauded spectacular retrieves which might otherwise have brought rousing cheers.
The fact that the 1959 nationals were run in Nevada is an indication of the growing popularity of field trials across the country. Where two decades ago there were few retrievers actively hunted afield and even fewer trials to test their ability, this year there were 144 licensed trials run in the U.S. "They never had retriever trials on the West Coast before the war," Billy Wunderlick, a top professional trainer and handler recalls, "and places like Montana never heard of a retriever. The retriever was really developed in the Midwest, which was a big duck hunting spot. But now even the flyways have changed; there's better duck hunting out here than back East and in the Midwest."
This is only part of the story. Shorter seasons and reduced game limits have also drawn more and more dog owners to field trial activities, where they have an opportunity to work and develop their dogs under conditions comparable to those experienced when actually hunting.
The Midwest and the East are still retriever strongholds, but half a dozen western states, like Nevada, have indicated by their interest and enthusiasm in recent trials that the situation may soon change. This increased interest in field trials on a national scale has of course increased competition and, with it, the quality of field trial retrievers. The country's leading retriever fanciers such as John Olin, Bing Grunwald, Mrs. Mumane and Lewis Greenleaf Jr. devote much of their time to improving breeding stock and to producing a better all-round field dog.
Today more than ever, a retriever who qualifies for the nationals has proved himself a champion whether or not he eventually wins the trophy. Some 5,000 retrievers competed in licensed field trials in 1959 to produce the 44 entries in this year's nationals. The dogs represented an aggregate of more than a million dollars and some 200 dog-years of training to prepare them for this year's contest. "The dog who won," said Judge Forest F. Flashman of Seattle, commenting on Spirit Lake Duke after the trial, "really won it. Nobody gave him anything. He completed all the tests, difficult tests, extremely well." In the opinion of the hushed, knowledgeable gallery, the judge had well described a worthy champion.