This week on a pheasant-filled 30,000-acre ranch outside Sacramento some 50-odd Labrador, Chesapeake and golden retrievers from all over the country are sniffling and snuffling through rice fields and jib corn. They are not ordinary-gundogs, however, nor is this an ordinary hunt. Indeed, these are the most extraordinary retrievers in the nation and, at the end of four days of grueling game tests, one of them will be crowned the 1963 National Champion.
Only a handful (about one in 200) of the more than 11,000 retrievers that run in registered field trials during the year are good enough to compete for this title. Those that do, represent an average investment for their owners of $20,000 and four years of intensive training. One owner has raised 400-odd puppies in six years and qualified exactly one. John Olin, whose King Buck won the National twice, has sunk about $750,000 in his dogs. Plainly, then, retriever trials are for rich men and professional trainers. But if this is so, what are a jobless amateur like James Leslie Lawrence Casey and his black Labrador, Cougar's Rocket, doing at the National? The answer is: scaring the pros and millionaires right out of their hunting boots.
Until 10 years ago the man everyone calls just Casey would have had trouble telling a retriever from a pointer. A 60-year-old, 140-pound Bantam rooster of a man who looks as though he might break into a soft-shoe dance at the drop of a straw skimmer, Casey has an Irish face lit by bright blue eyes and crinkled with laugh marks. His thinning hair is slicked back from a part that is almost dead center, and his bow tie and tweeds are straight from the Roaring Twenties.
"My legs were starting to give me trouble hunting," says Casey of his entry into the retriever game. "Some fellow suggested I get a Labrador to do the leg-work for me. So I paid $50 hard cash for this black dog, and would you believe it, he was going deaf and blind, but they took my money without saying a word."
Casey's investment was not a total loss. He bred the ailing animal (despite his infirmities, the animal's ancestry was impeccable—his father, Black Panther, won more field trial points than any other retriever in history) and got himself a healthy pup for the stud fee. He then bought a book for $5.95 and began to train the pup. Obviously nobody could train a champion retriever from a book, but Casey didn't know that. So, in the tiny backyard of his frame bungalow in Palo Alto, Calif., surrounded by apartment houses and city sounds, Casey, with book in hand and optimism in his heart, went to work.
"But it wasn't like work," Casey recalls, "because the dog and I both loved every minute of it. People used to say I trained by moonlight, headlight and flashlight, and I guess that's true. I finally got up enough courage to enter that pup in a derby [puppy] trial when he was 10 months old. I took along the book and kept reading the part that said, 'Relax on the line.' The dog did, but I was shaking all over. There were 32 entries in that trial, and when we came in fourth I felt like we had won the whole thing.
"Afterward this fellow in one of those Swiss mountain climber's hats came up to me and said, 'I don't know if you realize how good your dog is. My dog won third, and your dog was pushing mine. Mine happens to be the top derby dog in the country.'
"From then on, the sport had me," Casey adds. "I used to think I liked duck hunting, but it was nothing like field trials. I live on coffee and cigarettes and I'm nervous as a cat at a trial, but it's a grand feeling to stand on that line."
Before he retired the dog last year, Casey's first backyard prodigy had managed to qualify for and run in both the 1962 National Championship and the 1962 National Amateur Championship. Since professional handlers generally dominate any trials they are allowed to take part in, separate trials for amateur handlers are held both nationally and locally to give nonpros a chance. Casey's dog earned enough winning points at both open and amateur trials to put the titles Field Trial Champion and Amateur Field Trial Champion before his name. He also sired a black pup named Cougar's Rocket who began breaking records almost before he was weaned.
If Casey himself is an enigma to the old guard of the field trial set, his dog Cougar is even more so. In 1962, for example, Cougar was the eighth-ranking derby dog among 2,387 in the country and the top derby in California. He did not enter his first All-Age trial until last March, but by May he had an A.F.T.C. before his name. Only 30 dogs in the entire country earned these letters last year. By June, Cougar had qualified for and run in the 1963 National Amateur, by August he had qualified for the National Championship as well as for next year's National Amateur, and by September he had added F.T.C. to his Amateur title. Only 25 dogs were awarded this privilege last year.
As if this were not enough, Cougar showed up this week at the 1963 National (where seven points and one first place are required to qualify) with a total of 22 points and three firsts in registered trials this season. A few outstanding dogs have earned even more points than this in a single year, but what makes Casey's Cougar unique is that he did it while under 3 years old. In the retriever world this is comparable to winning a Fulbright Scholarship in kindergarten.
At the National Amateur last June the average age of the 58 dogs that ran was 6 years and 2 months. Cougar was all of 2 years and 4 months at the time. Such precocity is so frustrating to so many trainers that one "well-meaning" member of the clique recently advised Casey to take Cougar out of competition for about a year. "You don't want to overwork that dog at his age," he explained in his kindly way.
"Now isn't that a funny kind of advice?" Casey says, scratching his head. "Why that Cougar is a born ham. If we could afford it, we'd make every trial."
As it is, Casey and Cougar manage to make plenty of them. Crammed into a beat-up 1956 Buick along with an awe-inspiring collection of books, clothing, pots, pans, dog food, shotgun shells, old waders and assorted bottles of liniment, hair tonic, bourbon, rubbing alcohol and soft drinks, the pair would look utterly out of place among the shining new station wagons at most Nationals. But this year's National is different, and Casey and Company, if anything, are part of the trend it represents. For the West has moved in on field trialing and remade the sport in that image. More and more professional handlers are finding themselves competing at western trials against rank amateurs, and what is more, having a hard time of it. The legendary big names of the East and Midwest are finding their hottest (and most expensive) hopefuls soundly trounced by pet gun-dogs that in many cases have never even seen a professional trainer. And as western competition gets tougher, members of the old guard are beginning to sit up a little straighter on their shooting sticks to take a second look at some of the unknowns they would normally brush aside. What they are seeing at the National is Casey and his Cougar.