The Ghost of Solid Hilltopper
Beginning with the 2006 edition of the Florida Championship, the format for the trial was changed to a 40 minute qualifying series with a one-hour callback. The format was adopted to accommodate, within a one-week period, the large entries that the trial attracted. Handlers bring their charges to the quail-rich Chinquapin Farm to enjoy the unmatched hospitality of Ted Baker and the Suwanee River Field Trial Club, to compete in a unique challenge for the dogs, and to compete for the most generous purse in the sport.
The 2006 Florida Championship, with an advertised purse of $35,000, attracted a field of 90 under the direction of 17 handlers. What a field it was – from South Georgia came Robin Gates, Bubba Moreland, Fred Dileo, Rick Furney, Fred Rayl, Lee Phillips, Tom Shenker, and Joe Bush; the North Carolina contingent included Lefty Henry, Jimmy Edmundsen, and Mack Hilliard; from the Midwest came Andy Daugherty and Larry “Fuzz” Smith: from Tennessee, Fred Robinson; from Kentucky, John Russell; the home team consisted of Slade Sykes and Joe Hicks. The lineup included such canine luminaries as White’s Solid Reward, Marques Gold Rush, House’s Snakebite, Cypress Gunpowder, Rowan’s Gunsmoke, Double Rebel Legacy, Funseeker’s Rebel, Quail Acres Bob, Miller’s Online, Miller’s Southern Pride, South’s Late Night, Flatwood Earl, Point Blank, Pride’s Alibi, Gamemaker, Solid Reward, and Chinquapin Andy. A star-studded field, primed for competition at the highest level, over grounds offering a challenge more than sufficient to test their mettle to the limit. The advertised judges, Freddie Epp of Marion Junction, AL. and Harry Gilmore of Murphysboro, IL.
Included in the field of 90 was Solid Hilltopper, call name Hoss. Hoss was whelped March 31, 2002, by Solid Reward out of Hilltopper Tooter. He was from the heart of the Robinson breeding – Solid Reward the latest representative of a sire line from Endurance, Evolution, Redemption and Redemption’s Reward – Hilltopper Tooter, National Derby Championship runner-up, a granddaughter of Redemption’s Reward from both her sire, Attribution, and from her dam, Hilltopper Jill. Hoss was representative of that breeding, big, strong, tough, and always determined to find game. He was in every characteristic an all-age type and would exhibit all-age performance in all circumstances.
Hoss was precocious as a puppy, without question the best puppy I ever worked with. His early development proceeded well and his workouts in North Dakota prior to his derby year were spectacular. Returning home, he showed symptoms of Nocardia with antibiotic treatment attempted. His first win was a first-place placement in the Kentucky Quail Classic open derby in early December but by then it was apparent that the antibiotic regimen was not successful. He was taken to Dr. Roger Sifferman for surgical treatment in which nearly 50% of his lungs were removed. The problem determined to be a cheatgrass stem, with seed heads attached, deep in his lungs. His heart and lungs were affected and it was uncertain to what level he would be able to perform. Despite this setback and the resultant lack of conditioning, Hoss gave a championship-level performance in the All American Championship at Grovespring, MO in the spring.
In his first-year form, Hoss performed well, garnering a second-place placement in the American Quail Classic, runner-up in the National Amateur Quail Championship and runner-up in the AFTCA Region IV Championship. He also gave a championship-level performance at the Florida Championship until lost on his third find at 35 minutes into the hour brace. In his second year, at the National Amateur Invitational Championship at Como, MS, in mid-December, he virtually collapsed in his first hour. Taken to Dr. Sifferman for evaluation, his condition was determined to be a thyroid deficiency and medication was prescribed. He quickly recovered and his workouts prior to the Florida Championship returned to their previous form.
Hoss drew the 13th brace at Florida braced with Stowaway Dan under the whistle of Jimmy Edmundson. The challenge at Chinquapin is found in its unique characteristics. Rolling sand hills covered with blackjack oak, wiregrass, and the namesake chinquapin oak – briars in places where disturbance of the natural habitat has occurred – stretches of piney woods with the ever-present wiregrass. The courses determined by the hunting tracks laid out years before – water available only in barrels along the track, no edges, no agricultural fields – the objectives determined only by the course direction. The successful dog must sweep through the country along the track – the birds can be anywhere. He must bravely resist the distraction of the blackjack oak and briars impeding his path – no pottering, no timidity, no ducking the challenge allowed. He must resist the temptation of the easy footing along the firebreaks and course track – a pattern unlikely of success. He must be bold, courageous, and strong. To understand the challenge of Chinquapin one must only observe the hunting wagon dogs used there – big, tough, classy dogs, dogs capable of competing at any level but earning the privilege of providing the highest expression of the sport for the Bakers and their guests.
The quail at Chinquapin are an integral part of the challenge. They are native quail. By January, the dumb ones are gone, the survivors are those that have learned every trick for survival available to them. They don’t play fair. They must be found and like wild quail everywhere, there are days and portions of days that only the best and perhaps luckiest dogs can be successful. Sometimes they are jumpy and the slightest mistake of the dog will result in a flush, other times, they are very reluctant to flush despite the most diligent effort of the hunter. They can and will run, scattering through the wiregrass, making the effort of relocation very difficult. They are generally not bound to a specific location so must be found by the dog not by the handler. Above all else, they are plentiful and every competitor comes there knowing that they have a chance – no cheap champions at Chinquapin.
The thirteenth brace began in the flat portion of hour-course #2. The second course at Chinquapin is one of the great field trial courses of the sport – allowing an expression of all-age qualities in full measure. On this day, Hoss expressed those qualities in a grand manner indeed. Bold, powerful, unflinching in his quest for game, always in the 10 to 2 sweet spot, never seeking the easy path but driving through the blackjack oak heedless of the branches whipping across his face and scratching his sides and legs, always mindful of his handler but independent in his use of the air currents and of the objectives likely to hold quail.
At 11 he was observed standing well ahead to the right of the course path, proud, intense, his entire being focused on the delicious scent emanating from the wiregrass immediately in front of him. As his handler approached, a covey lifted one hundred yards or so to the front, the gallery excitedly calling flight of the birds, Hoss unwavering in his intensity and focus. Hoss, like his sire, was always accurate in his location of birds. If they ran, he would indicate this by looking at his handler asking for permission to relocate. In this case his attitude indicated the game was immediately in front of him and this proved to be the case as they were quickly flushed, the dog unwavering in his intensity. An excellent find without flaw.
Sent on, Hoss continued to impress with his ground application, driving through the cover, going forward with power. Across the powerline, Hoss was found by scout at 20 standing on rise to left of the course path – judge and handler summoned. Again, the dog was lofty in pose, intense and focused in attitude. As handler approached, with a slight movement of his head, he indicated the precise location of the game. Handler changed direction to the point indicated and the covey was quickly flushed – the dog again unwavering in his pose and intensity. A great find, handled in exquisite fashion, judge Epp remarking “I liked that, you paid attention to what he was telling you”. My reply, “I am an old bird hunter!”
Continuing on, Hoss ran the balance of his heat in the manner begun, bold, searching casts, driving through the cover without yield to the effects of the briars or the blackjack oak, showing no lack of desire or endurance. He finished going out of sight over a hill far to the front. For his effort, Hoss was named top qualifier
In the call back, Hoss again was down on the second hour course, this time beginning at the regular starting place. If possible, his ground effort was even better than that of his qualifying brace. Powerful, bold, searching casts, always going forward, his effort the epitome of the all-age class. Alas, on this day the first two hours was not the time to be in the field, only three coveys seen for the two braces, the birds reluctant to flush. Hoss was able to score at 51 but scored a stop to flush on relocation of the running covey – the birds not playing fair. As my friend T. Jack Robinson remarked on occasion, “if we always knew the best time to be afield, we would have killed the last quail years ago.”
Hoss returned to Florida the following year, running his qualifying heat on the first course in the rain. He scored five times in 28 minutes under the adverse conditions followed by two searching casts to the limits of the course in the remaining time – he was not called back for the finals.
During the remainder of the season and during the summer trip to North Dakota, Hoss at times gave subtle indications that all was not well but continued to perform at a high level. At home in September during a roading session, Hoss pointed a covey of quail in the roading harness. He was as intense and focused as always, standing tall and proud, the birds precisely located, unwavering in any respect for the flush and shot. As I touched him to release him from his stand, he fell dead, his great heart no longer able to sustain him from the damage to his heart and lungs. He was 5 1/2 years old.
Hoss was a great dog. Despite heart and lung issues that would severely handicap a lesser dog he provided many excellent and exciting performances. Perhaps his greatest performance was as a companion for my wife, Kayelene, in her final few years battling the terrible effects of breast cancer. Every night Hoss would come in to lie by her chair until bedtime, his love and devotion to her as great as his love for the pursuit of upland game birds.
At this year’s Florida Championship, I overheard a discussion attempting to identify special places on the Chinquapin Farm grounds. The purpose was to identify places suitable for pictures to include in a pictorial essay celebrating the trial. As I listened, I realized that what makes a particular place special is the memory of some event or happening that occurred there. I also realized that every time we pass by the segment of the second course where Hoss scored his second find during his qualifying heat in 2006, someone would make some remark about the find. I determined that I needed to go there and take a picture of my special spot on Chinquapin Farm.
At the conclusion of this year’s championship, I went to the site of his find and took a picture of that place. The picture accompanying this story shows the result of that effort. The ghost of Solid Hilltopper, still standing proud and strong, focused, intense, living on as long as those of us who love the sport gather at places like Chinquapin to celebrate a unique creature, the all-age bird dog.