January 19th and 20th marked the 16th annual Belle Meade Performance Trials, as well as the seventh performance trials of the Hark Forward initiative. Six hunts and 42 hounds entered, including two hunts competing in performance trials for the first time. Midland Fox Hounds (GA), Bull Run Hunt (VA) and, of course, Belle Meade Hunt (GA) represented the “returning royalty” for this annual event. Newcomers were the Saxonburg Hunt of Saxonburg, PA and Aiken, SC, and Whiskey Road Foxhounds (SC).
Team Whiskey Road Foxhounds was pleased with their hounds' excellent performance. Barbara Nelson photo.
Aiken Hounds (SC) competed as well, looking to repeat the dominance they achieved at the Moore County Hound Performance Trials in November and the Aiken Drag Performance Trials held in Belle Meade country just the preceding week.
The guest huntsman was Charles Montgomery, professional huntsman for Bull Run Hunt (VA). Charles grew up hunting with Belle Meade and whipped-in to founder James Wilson, MFH, so he knows the Belle Meade country well. Bull Run hounds, however, did not compete, thereby ensuring a level playing field for all hounds.
As per usual, representatives from each hunt comprised the team of judges. Presiding over the event was Grosvenor Merle-Smith, whose curriculum vitae includes ex-Master of Tennessee Valley Hunt (TN), ex-Master and huntsman of Bull Run, and former Master of Ireland’s Golden Vale Hunt.
Horses and riders gathered at 8:30 a.m. for a stirrup cup outside the lovely hunt box of Belle Meade first field master, Jean Derrick. Hot Irish whiskey poured from a mid-19th century silver service was accompanied by sausage balls passed around on silver trays. Jean is the epitome of a classic, Southern hostess!
At nine o’clock sharp, hounds, horses and riders left the Belle Meade Kennels and Hunt Barn and made their way east to the first cast. Eight minutes later, hounds struck in the woods just north of the gas pipeline, screamed northeast to Gentleman of Virginia Hill and then on to the woods across Stagecoach Road. Hound music filled the woods as the chase continued eastward, toward the water treatment plant. Hounds circled the plant and returned to the woods, heading north towards Mattox Creek. After about 25 minutes, hounds lost the line near the crumbled remains of the Wrightsboro Mill foundation, circa 1771.
Charles picked hounds up with the intent of taking them northwest to cast again near the Quaker Cemetery, but they found before Charles got there. Hounds erupted again and the chase took us across Mattox Creek at the historic and breathtaking Rock Dam, also circa 1771. For the next thirty minutes, hounds trailed northeast through the woods until they lost again near the Twin Oaks landmark, along the eastern border of Belle Meade’s vast hunt country.
Meanwhile, a coyote had been viewed by Saxonburg Hunt MFH Floyd Wine near Boy Scout Cabin, due west of Twin Oaks and deeper into the country. Charles carried the hounds to the view and in a moment they were speaking again! The run lasted about 25 minutes and took us east across Mattox Creek again. Several road whips and car followers viewed the coyote as it crossed the road heading for the Belle Meade Country Club on the edge of hunt country, so the decision was made to stop hounds there.
After a brief refreshment break, Charles cast the hounds again further west and deeper into the hunt country. For the next hour, hounds hunted and spoke in spurts until Trial President Merle-Smith called day one to a close. It had been three and a half hours of excellent work by the huntsman and hounds, great scoring opportunities for the judges, and thrilling runs for all the riders.
At the awards ceremony, Charles expressed his pleasure with the hounds, how well they melded and how hard they worked. Scenting was challenging, he explained, due to freezing temperatures overnight and at the start, then quickly rising during the hunt, producing a deceivingly fresh scent on lines that were actually several hours old. Top awards went to Midland and Bull Run, with seven of the top ten hounds between them. Hounds from Whiskey Road, Belle Meade, and Saxonburg rounded out the top ten hounds for the day.
Nearly 100 riders gathered at half past eight on Saturday morning. Once again, Jean Derrick provided a splendid stirrup cup, this time featuring hot buttered rum with ham biscuits and pastries. Experience tells us that the second day of a two-day performance trial is generally better than the first, because the hounds have melded more as a pack and with the guest huntsman. As such, the air was filled with energy and excitement!
Charles took the hounds west for the first cast. Almost immediately, a few hounds opened and whippers-in viewed the deer they were speaking on with the offending hounds in hot pursuit. Merle-Smith also witnessed the incident and made the call to pull the two riot-running hounds. The kennel truck was nearby to pick up the hounds and, in short order, Charles carried the rest of the pack forward to resume the hunt.
This morning was much warmer and drier, really testing the “wants to” of this mixed pack, and they did not disappoint! Over the next hour, we saw hounds feather, then open. Other hounds harked to the hounds speaking and, as a group, they trailed a short distance, then lost. Without hesitation or any prompting by Charles, hounds backed up and hunted from before the point where they lost the scent, often finding again and trailing right or left of their first attempt. This “dance” played out over the next hour, carrying us north towards Master Wilson’s Foxboro Farm.
There hounds erupted in full cry just beyond the field’s line of sight. Road whips radioed that deer had run out from where the hounds were speaking, but no hounds were in pursuit. Charles could see that one of his most trusted hounds was among the front runners and radioed, “This is right” before encouraging the pack forward.
The run took us deeper into Foxboro Farm and in the opposite direction of the riot, giving additional validation to this fine pack. After an hour run, the best of the trial, the decision was made to call it a day. Once again, there had been ample opportunities for judges to score hounds, scenting was only getting more difficult, and everybody was getting hungry.
Back at the Belle Meade clubhouse, Boots Hall, lunch was served while the judges transcribed their scores and scorers fastidiously entered them into the scoring program. In short order, day two and overall results were announced, and it was quite a turn of events from day one! Where Bull Run and Midland had dominated on day one, only one Midland hound and not a single Bull Run hound finished in the top ten on day two! And that Midland hound just squeaked in with tenth place for the day. Newcomer Whiskey Road's hounds dominated on day two, with three of their hounds in the top five.
Whiskey Road Kildare '15 (their Lawyer x Fox River Valley Ketchup) and Saxonburg Postman took Champion and Reserve, respectively, for the weekend, beating out the “returning royalty” from Midland, Bull Run and Belle Meade. Beginner’s luck? Not likely! While few would argue that luck is often a factor in any successful hunt, it takes a lot more than luck, beginner’s or otherwise, to secure the top spots in a hound performance trial. It takes being there consistently in all phases of the hunt - hunting, trailing and full cry – on both days, and that’s just what Kildare and Postman did.
Midland won top hunt honors for the weekend, with Whiskey Road just 67.5 points behind in second and Belle Meade Hunt in third, 155 points behind Whiskey Road.
And what about that Aiken bitch, Middleburg Euro, who was so dominant at the live trial at Mooreland and the drag trial at Belle Meade? She won the Huntsman’s Choice award, presented to the “hound that the huntsman would most like to take home.” Charles explained his selection: “When we were at Wendi’s bridge (Foxboro Farm, on the second day), there was a line on the other side of the creek. She picked it up and was the first to speak on it, and that developed into the best run of the day.”
For full results, click here.