Friday, August 15, 2008

A "True" Champion..

This piece, taken from "The True Citizen" of January 3, 2007. A look at the life and times of Harold Ray, one of the driving forces behind the famed "Smith Setters" of Elwin & Inez Smith. Mr. Ray, along with then wife Sherry, were the force to be reckoned with on the All-Age circuit for decades. The number of champions they brought along was truly staggering.


A look into the world of renowned shooting-dog trainer, Harold Ray
By Elizabeth Billips Associate Editor

It was a clear October night in 1959 when the skinny 17-year-old stumbled off the southbound Greyhound in front of Johnson’s Service Station.

He’d sat on that bus for two solid days, twiddling his thumbs through stops in every two-bit town from Maryland to Georgia.

He’d been on his own for three years already but didn’t have much to show for it – just a small roll of bills, a hand-medown suitcase and a promise of a steady job with bird dog trainer Fred Bevan.

He stepped under the streetlights, took

a deep breath and decided to never look back.

The bus rumbled off toward the next town, and Mr. Bevan’s newlywed daughter Marianne stood waiting for him, along with her husband Billy Hopper.

They eyed her daddy’s new hired hand and wondered if he’d make it.

“He was just a young kid … a teenager,” Billy says, remembering the travel-worn boy who hardly said a word as they drove down the dark highway to the Bevan’s place.

Billy never imagined that boy

would grow into a legend.

Forty-seven years later, Harold Ray kicks off his muddy work boots by the backdoor and pads around his cabin in socked feet.

He’s no young man anymore, though his quickness has a way of deceiving.

Portraits of dogs with names like Tomoka, The Performer and Destinare hang behind him like heroes.

Across the den, a modestly framed resolution from the Georgia Senate commends him for being one of the most successful shooting dog trainers in the entire world.

There’s stock behind that claim – 80 championships, 67 runners-up and 21 futurity wins.

That’s also why he was elected to the Field Trial Hall of Fame in 2006 – the very year he turned 64 and finally met the minimum age requirement.

“A lot of people have better dogs,” Harold says. “They just don’t know how to show them.”

When Harold puts on his sweat-ringed leather hat, it means business.

He’s been wearing it since the dark, quiet hours before dawn.

It’s not yet nine, but the kennels are clean and the predator traps have been checked and reset.

Soon, he’ll saddle up old Ed and start working the dogs on the back of the farm.

All 53 of them go to yipping when the backdoor swings open and they see Harold’s measured strides getting closer.

“You can’t lose your temper … they won’t forgive you,” Harold explains as he unlatches the gate. “If you scold them, it’ll break their hearts – and that will show up later in their style or point.”

Something in Harold goes soft as the puppies clamor for his attention in a whirlwind of wagging tails and flopping ears.

With only one or two litters a year, they’re both his pleasure and his livelihood.

He laughs aloud as they bounce off his belly with redclay paws.

If Harold gets two champions from the bunch, it’ll be a good year.

“You can only bring out what’s in a dog … you can’t make something that’s not there,” he says. “If I do my job right, a dog will show the same natural qualities she showed as a puppy, but with more control.”

The six litter-mates have known Harold since before their eyes opened.

He held each one close in those first few days, letting them take in his smell and the feel of his farm-rough fingers.

When they were fat-bellied babies, he led them around the farm with their mother, letting them explore and socialize on their own terms.

Now, they go with him to the pasture where the Tennessee Reds are hatched and bred.

Harold looks for glints of their champion bloodline as they sniff out quail, point and chase.

“It’s like raising kids, really,” he theorizes. “Anybody can break a child, or a dog, through fear. But to be successful in the end, he has to respect you … not be afraid of you.”

Life without dogs doesn’t work well for Harold.

He knows. When he was 19 he left them for a construction job in New Jersey.

Where there had been dirt roads and the howl of the kennels, there were suddenly traffic snarls and jackhammers.

The work crew spent day after day piecing together cement and steel that would become the Atlantic City Airport.

Huge jets would take off from the runways they poured, their seats full of travelers bound for vacations and lives all over the world.

But Harold just wanted to go back to the place he realized was home.

He mailed a letter from New Jersey, asking Mr. Bevan for his old job back.

Mr. Bevan agreed, but after a few years, growing pains hit Harold hard and he began to grow restless again.

This time, he bypassed the big city and took an offer from dog owners Elwin and Inez Smith.

They were Pittsburgh folks who frequented the field trials and spent summers on their Burke County farm. In a sport associated with English pointers, they were known for their fine English setters.

Within days, Harold packed his bags and sealed his future with a gentleman’s handshake.

He was back, and the Smith setters would soon be famous.

In 1969, Harold won his first field trial championship with Susan’s Lady Bird.

The names of the champion setters would change over the next 38 years, but the winning wouldn’t.

He’s won at least one championship every year since and has no intentions of slowing down.

“He’s very serious … one of the best trainers anywhere,” remarks Nell Mobley, a longtime officer of the Georgia Field Trial Association. “If Harold has a dog he doesn’t think will win, he won’t even consider putting him in.”

The sun breaks through the clouds as Harold’s son, Doug, pulls the trailer between the stables and kennels.

He was reared there on the farm, along with 40-something litters of English setters.

His dad is still carrying on the Smith tradition, though they’re no longer there to enjoy it.

Mr. Smith died back in 1991, and his widow isn’t able to spend summers on the farm or travel to the trials like she used to.

But she always comes back in February when Harold hosts the amateur field trials amongst the 1,600 acres of rolling hills and ponds.

“I never get tired of looking at this place,” Harold says as he stops along some high land and stares down at the stables and cabins.

It’s his now. The Smiths gave it all outright to the man who put their setters on the map.

The dogs spring off their hind legs and strain against their collars as Doug loads up the lucky three they’ll work that morning.

“When this trailer pulls up, they know it means something fun is going to happen,” he says.

He handpicks Affirm, Nicodemus and Barbaros and drives toward the clearing where his dad is waiting.

“We spend six days a week chasing quail,” Doug says as he hops out of his truck to shoo several of the 4,000 or so back into the underbrush. The longevity of the 130-odd coveys depends on full feeders, good plantings of grain and cover, and the trapping of egg-eaters like raccoons, possums and coyotes.

While Harold works the Smith setters, Doug trains pointers for Fred Rowan, the CEO of OshKosh B’Gosh and Carters.

Working together has made them both stronger handlers, but the competitions are tense.

“It can be tough sometimes … real tough,” Doug says. “It’s a game, but a very, very serious one.”

The men take turns working their dogs, letting one run ahead while the other hangs back with his trainer.

Affirm, who goes by his callname, Andy, shakes with excitement as Harold unclips his leash.

He loops past the pines and bounds through the lovegrass until the scent of a quail hits him like a glass wall.

When Andy points, the world stands on-end.

The horses stop on their own accord, and all is quiet save the occasional clink of a bridle or bit.

The setter stands like a trembling statue, his tail straight as a lightning rod.

Beneath his shorn coat, muscles vibrate like the end of a tuning fork.

Two years of good training hold him steady while Harold unholsters a pistol and fires a blank above the covey.

The birds fly up and scatter behind the gunpowder cloud, but Andy restrains himself.

Satisfied, Harold rubs his fingers along the setter’s tail and gives him a few good pats on the haunches. “Good boy, Andy,” he says in the sing-song voice of a new parent. “Yes, you’re a good boy.”

Andy doesn’t just have good training, he’s got a good bloodline. Like every Smith setter, he was birthed by a champion mother.

“There’s very little experimentation,” Harold says referring to the four or five different crosses from which every setter is sprung. “We got something that worked, and we stuck with it.”

It’s worked so well, a line of Smith setters is thriving, and winning, in Scandinavia.

More than three decades ago, Hans Rasmus Astrup came to Burke County from Norway in search of the famous setters.

It was a good investment. The offspring have won more than 600 hunting awards for Kennel Sletthallen over the years.

“The dogs the Smiths sold him in the seventies are dead, but they’re still siring pups,” Harold says, thumbing through a coffee table book full of glossy photographs of Astrup’s champion dogs. “The line is living on through frozen sperm.”

Back in Burke County, the late morning air turns so thick and still, even the lovegrass stops its dancing.

Harold reins his horse off the trail, discerning the slightest ruffling of feathers.

The dogs nudge in, but the birds sit like stones to wait them out.

With no breeze to carry the scent, the dogs are at a loss.

Sensing the problem, Harold pulls Barbaro out of the brush and leads him back to the horses.

He’s bothered by the weather, but not the missed point.

“Sometimes you’ve got to know when to stop,” he says, swinging a leg over the saddle and heading for home. “If you’re not careful, you can do more harm than good.”

“It’s non-stop around here,” Doug offers between unsaddling horses and strapping setters to the eight-harness ATV for a four-mile run.

Besides the 53 dogs that need to be worked, fed, cleaned up after and loved on, there’re 16 field trial horses with similar needs.

“We’re just a giant daycare for animals,” he laughs as a setter licks him square on the mouth.

Harold takes the finished dogs off for their run. Some of them will be competing in the Georgia Field Trials at Di-Lane, and he wants them tip-top.

“To win with a dog, you have to know him so well,” Harold says, after the dogs have had their run and cooled off in the troughs. “You can’t assembly line train them … you have to build a personal relationship with each of them.”

The man who’s known as one of the world’s toughest field trial competitors looks out over his

farm and rubs the soft part of a setter’s ear between his thumb and forefinger.

He talks of champions like True Citizen who are buried in the little cemetery near his cabin, and laughs at himself as he brushes away a stray tear with his knuckle.

“Somebody once told me, ‘Ask a lot, but demand little,’ and I believe that,” he says. “You have to teach a dog to think for himself, then step back a little and let him be his own dog.”

Words of Wisdom from the Master..

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