Like all experienced judges, Ben Reach hated callbacks. Ben had never suggested one, and when a fellow judge wanted one, he resisted with all his might, and had been known to urge a flip of a coin to resolve the winner, even when he felt strongly his pick should have the win over the other judge’s pick. But in this, the National Derby Championship, where the choice was between Pete of Paducah (Ben’s choice) and Columbus Chief (his fellow judge’s choice) there would be no coin flip. Ben would either have to concede and give the title to Chief or endure a callback. He was just stubborn enough to endure a callback.
The circumstances were odd, to say the least. Both dogs had the same handler, Jeff Briggs, and the same owner, Sam Carter, the flamboyant Birmingham plaintiffs lawyer who had recently bought What-the-Hell Plantation near Thomasville. How to conduct a callback under these circumstances? Jeff Briggs could not handle both dogs, so one would be at a distinct disadvantage. And who would decide which dog Jeff would handle?
Ben pointed all this out in arguing against the callback and urging a coin toss, but his fellow judge countered there was no unfairness in making Jeff and Sam Carter make the call on handlers in the callback. Besides, the other judge said, Pete’s handler until early in the fall and the man who had developed him, Fred Stant, was Sam’s employee and would be the logical choice to handle Pete. This made Ben cringe, for he knew full well why Jeff now handled Pete and how Sam Carter had bought him for a tenth of his worth from Fred Stant under threat of criminal prosecution, well deserved by Fred for the theft in North Dakota of Chief (see The Bad Summer for the story of that).
Of course Ben could say nothing of this to his fellow judge, having learned it from Fred in a client-to-lawyer confidential communication.
As expected, Jeff advised the judges he would handle Chief and Fred Stant would handle Pete in the callback, to be run at 9 am next day. Ben and his fellow judge announce the callback would be for at least 45 minutes and however longer (if any) it took to separate the dogs, and that if in their judgment neither dog merited the title they would name the dog they were carrying third (and unnamed) the Champion and one of Pete and Chief Runner Up. Ben was disgusted with it all but it was all he and his fellow judge could settle on as a compromise.
At the breakaway next morning Ben vowed to himself this would be his last judging assignment, a vow he had made several times but always backed down from to serve in an emergency. He had accepted this job because he loved the derby championships and especially this one, the only 90-minute derby stake. And because he knew Pete and Chief were exceptional derbies he had not had the chance to watch earlier in the season. Like many old-time trialers, the derbies were the dogs that excited him. But this callback, he told himself, would likely be a disaster.
The enmity borne by Jeff Briggs for Fred Stant was well known in the sport and fully shown on Jeff’s face when the two handlers came to the line, leading the callback derbies. Fred spoke to Jeff but Jeff did not speak to Fred and avoided even looking his way. As the handlers turned the dogs over to scouts for the breakaway, Ben said,
“Jeff, Fred, before you mount come speak with me a minute.” They were startled by the unusual request but as Ben walked behind a nearby holly tree that would shield them from the eyes of the gallery they followed, leaving their mounts ground tied at the breakaway spot.
“Boys, you two have had the first big break a handler needs when you found these dogs. The other big break you are going to need always is the respect and admiration of men and women who can be good owners or employers for you, and this is a constantly changing and small population over a working lifetime (Ben sensed he was using too big words and tried to adjust his choice of words).
“I know you two do not like one another. When you turn these special dogs loose I want you to think about who is watching you handle. They are some of the best potential owners and employers you are likely to see in one place. They do not want to see you pouting or trying to pull dirty tricks on one another. You are likely to need some of them as friends over the years. You have been in the game long enough to know Sam Carter may grow tired of field trials and plantation hunting, or both, any time.
“You boys go out there and honor those great derbies by being gentlemen and sportsmen and no matter what happens you can always have good memories of these dogs and this day. When you get old memories is all you are going to have. And when you walk back to the line, shake hands and wish each other luck before you mount.”
Jeff and Fred didn’t know what to say, so they said what their rural southern upbringing told them to say.
A minute later Ben said, “Let ‘em go.”
Scouting for Jeff and Chief was Billy, the handler who had caught Fred in his act of larceny of Chief in North Dakota, and for Fred and Pete the scout was Buddy Blevins, a third generation black dog man whose father and grandfather had worked on What-the-Hell Plantation and trained dogs and scouted as Buddy did now.
The derbies departed in their usual form, seeking the front naturally and reaching. Their scouts were relaxed, their handlers as up tight as drum heads. They not only did not like one another, they did not trust one another, and the tension between them had been sensed by Pete and Chief. They were running and hunting but with an abandon that if not soon bridled would result in both escaping out the front. Their scouts, especially Buddy, sensed this, and he watched his charge like a hawk, ready to take to the woods in search any second.
Both dogs were hunting in spectacular patterns, marking opposing parentheses to the front, not running wildly but searching for birds with every breath and stride and using the breeze to advantage. Soon it was evident birds were not in the open and both derbies dug in to heavier cover in search. The scouts drifted from sight of judges and gallery, valiantly striving to stay in touch with their charges.
Billy had instructions from Jeff to do all in his power to derail Pete if the opportunity came. Buddy had other instructions, from Fred this morning, and from his father and grandfather, the last two remembered from youth.
Soon the distant call of point came from deep to the left and behind. The voice was unmistakably Buddy’s and judges, gallery and Fred rode for it at a canter. They arrived to see Buddy with cap raised high. Before him pointing was Chief. Soon Billy arrived and Ben, covering the find, deputized him to flush, with results all in order.
Twice more in the allotted 45 minutes, Buddy called point to the side for Chief, who had birds and handled them. Meanwhile Pete found birds three times at the front where he was seen pointing by Fred while riding the course before the judges.
When the initial time expired, Ben and his fellow judge called a halt and named Pete Champion and Chief Runner Up to gallery applause. To Ben’s great satisfaction, Jeff embraced Fred in a genuine gesture of forgiveness.
Before the callback commenced Jeff had proposed that he and Fred split the Champion and Runner Up purses equally whatever the decision. Fred had agreed, but he endorsed the winner’s check to Jeff and put it in his hand.
“After what I did in North Dakota, I do not deserve any of this purse,” Fred said. Jeff insisted he and Fred split the aggregate purse equally, as originally agreed, less an extra scout’s percentage for Buddy. Billy, who had done nothing worthwhile scouting, got the agreed scout percent for runner up.
The following Monday Fred and Jeff showed up at seven in the morning at Millie’s Diner. They were waiting when Ben and Sam arrived.
“Mr. Ben, we just want to thank you for what you taught us and for making us pals again,” Jeff said. Fred nodded agreement.
Ben said, “Come eat breakfast with us and tell us how you lucked on to those derbies. You are not likely to have another as good the rest of your lives.”