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The Odd Couple

By Tom Word | May 29, 2019

They were known in the field trial fraternity as the “Odd Couple”.

Mike Trent was a classic Type A Competitor, perennially among the top ten amateur handlers in horseback all-age competition, as serious as a heart attack about winning, and as skilled as most any professional in developing and handling prospects. Bill East was as inept as Mike Trent was competent, but he too loved to run his dogs in competition, though he hardly ever placed a dog of his own.

Bill had but two skills some said, as a scout for Mike’s dogs and as an all-night driver of their shared Dually-trailer rig, in which they hauled mounts and dogs to any trials that Mike thought he might have a chance to win, starting in late summer on the northern prairies and continuing into April in the mid-Atlantic states after competing during the winter months in the Deep South.

Mike and his dogs were always contenders, Bill and his entries were never a threat. But Mike had no sense of humor and little sense of fun. Winning was everything for him, but he lacked the capacity to take joy from his success. Bill, on the other hand, took joy from competing, though he did it ineptly. He loved his dogs, his horses and the humans he encountered along the field trial roads and venues. And he loved a good dog, no matter its owner or handler.

The trouble started when Bill received as a gift prompted by an unsolicited act of kindness toward a fellow trialer a weanling son of a National Champion pointer. Bill named it Fred after its donor. From early puppyhood it showed signs of talent. Bill socialized it from its arrival at his home, made it a member of his household and his constant companion. It bonded to him.

A true January pup, it soon caught Mike’s eye. True to his nature Mike said nothing complimentary to Bill about Fred. But equally true to his nature, he was soon coveting Fred. What a waste, he thought, for that pup to belong to Bill.

What little success Bill enjoyed as a competitor had always been in puppy and early Derby stakes, before his ineptness spoiled whatever natural talent a prospect possessed. Fred won two puppy stakes as a yearling. As he approached his Derby fall, Mike began plotting how he might gain ownership of Fred.

Bill won two firsts in prairie Derby stakes with Fred despite several handling errors. Fred was a natural front runner already, so as long as Bill kept his mount pointed down the course path Fred could pretty much handle himself. He was bold and independent but also wanted to stay in touch through the occasional sight of Bill’s mount and the sound of his song. Mike’s envy grew. Bill sensed it, though he didn’t let on.

By mid-winter Fred was the talk of the fraternity and well on his way to Amateur Derby of the Year. He grew bolder and bolder. He pretty much broke himself. But Bill began to lose confidence in himself as Fred’s handler as the Derby championships loomed. He had never placed a dog in a Derby championship. When he told Mike of his misgivings Mike saw an opportunity to acquire Fred.

While the two usually limited their competitions to amateur stakes, they made an exception when they had a prospect Mike judged capable of competing in open Derby stakes. The two decided they would enter Fred in the Georgia and Continental Derby Championships. To ready Fred they drove to Georgia on December 1 to work on a quail plantation owned by an old friend of Bill.

By then Mike had lobbied Bill into thinking he owed it to Fred to have Mike handle Fred in the Derby Championships. So in workouts on the quail plantation Mike assumed the role of handler and Bill that of scout.

Observing this daily was Wally Pace, manager and dog trainer on the plantation. When not managing quail hunts he was riding as guide for Bill and Mike as they readied Fred for the Derby Championships. What he soon saw as a neutral observer was a disaster approaching.

Meanwhile Mike, ever confident and covetous of Fred, was failing to communicate with the dog in every workout. Only when Bill as scout had to take charge momentarily did Fred shown his natural greatness.

Two days before Bill and Mike were scheduled to leave for Waynesboro, Wally could contain himself no longer. Soon after Bill and Mike retired to their guest cottage, Wally entered and going to the bar poured himself a Crown Royal and Coke. Bill and Mike already had drinks in hand and boots off, their tired feet up on hassocks in front of their armchair, they stared at the open fire just lit with fat wood.

“Boys, I don’t often offer unrequested advice, but I am going to give you some. If Mike handles Fred in the Georgia Derby Championship, he will not place. If Bill handles, Fred will win the Championship. It’s that simple. The dog is totally in tune with Bill. He don’t like Mike.”

With that Wally put his empty glass in the sink and walked for the door. He did not want to discuss the subject. The screen door slammed shut loudly behind him.

On their drive to Waynesboro, Mike and Bill debated who should handle Fred. Mike lobbied hard to handle, Bill mostly listened, but Wally’s speech in the guest house rang in his ears.

As they pulled in to park the long rig, Bill said in surrender, “OK, you handle.”

Fred had drawn an early brace. The reporter’s notes on Fred’s performance read, “Side to side or yo-yoing out, then back. X” Fred did not place.

Mike ran three entries in the Georgia Quail Championship. They made creditable bids but did not place. As usual Mike handled skillfully and Bill scouted ably. They returned to Bill’s friend’s quail plantation to prepare for the Continental Derby Championship, scheduled to start in a week.

Once more Wally rode as guide and observer as Mike and Bill worked their strings. And again Wally said, but this time only to Bill, “You have got to handle Fred to have a chance at Dixie.”

When time came to depart for Dixie Plantation, Wally got word that his boss would not be coming to hunt or sending others to his plantation the week of the Continental Derby Championship. Bill invited Wally to come with him and Mike to Dixie. Wally accepted and Mike smarted. When they left Sunday afternoon Bill drove the giant rig, loaded with Wally’s two horses in addition to the customary load.

Mike was silent most of the trip as Bill and Wally recalled happy times from the past with Wally’s boss who had been Bill’s college roommate and since then frequent host of Bill for quail, turkey and dove outings on the plantation he had acquired the old fashion way, by inheritance.

Fred had drawn the opening brace of the Continental Derby Championship. Wally would ride front and Wally fully expected Bill to handle. But low and behold when the three approached the breakaway Bill was leading Fred on a rein. Mike would again handle.

Anger flashed on Wally’s face but he bit his lip and said nothing. The judges nodded and Bill unleashed Fred. The race was on. Mike hit his whistle hard and Fred lit out on a lateral cast. Mike rode on the course, confident Bill, scouting, would have no trouble guiding Fred unobtrusively back to the front.

But when Bill found Fred on his haunches hidden in bushes off the edge of the course he refused to heel or to cast in front of Bill’s mount. At first Bill was alarmed, concerned that Fred might be caught in a leg trap or snare. But when he dismounted and went into the thicket where Fred cowered, the dog jumped and put his front paws on Bill’s shoulders, at the same time licking his face all over. Finally Bill understood, Fred wanted him to handle.

Bill sweet talked his dog, hugged him, then said, “ Come on Fred, I understand. Heel me now.”

He swung into the saddle and rode for the judges. He arrived with Fred at heel.

“Judges, I am going to handle my dog from here on. When Mike gets back tell him he is riding front. With your permission Wally Pace will scout.” The judges nodded.

For the remaining forty-five minutes, Fred ran a dream race, keeping the front and scoring three perfect finds on which he was steady at flush and shot. He required no scouting by Wally who never left the gallery.

Mike had returned to the judges at twenty minutes to hear from them Bill’s instructions that he ride front. Instead he rode back to headquarters.

No one was surprised when Fred was named Continental Derby Champion of 2021.

And no one riding at Dixie Plantation that week was surprised to learn that the Odd Couple had broken up.

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