Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources 

The 2012 Master National was a bittersweet event for Rob Leatherbury of Fairhope, Ala. One of the biggest stages in the nation for hunting retrievers was missing one entry, a Labrador that had become basically a member of the Leatherbury family.

The Master National, recently held at the M. Barnett Lawley Forever Wild Field Trial Area near Greensboro, Ala., attracts the top retrieving breeds in the nation, and Leatherbury has a lengthy history with retriever competition. Leatherbury also had a role in securing the host site through the Forever Wild Land Trust, a program that has secured more than 227,000 acres for public use in its 20-year history. However, Forever Wild must be reauthorized by the Alabama voters on the Nov. 6 ballot for the program to continue to purchase land from willing sellers for outdoors recreation.

Leatherbury originally had two dogs qualify for the Master National, but one dog was missing.

“Unfortunately, my greatest dog had a heart attack three weeks ago and died,” he said. “She was 10. We were training for the Master National. We were over in the Fairhope area. I kept all my dogs in the dog trailer except for her. She rode in the seat beside me. I ran her first while it was good and cool. She hopped back in the cab. I ran a younger dog and a friend ran one. I went back toward the truck, and she would have normally been sitting there, looking at me. I couldn’t see her, and when I got to the truck she was dead. Her name was Belle Shain’s Frangelico. She was a master hunter. I called her Frannie.

“I’m still not over it. And I’m not even talking about my wife (Mary Shain). Frannie slept right by our bed every night.”

Leatherbury’s melancholy mood was lightened considerably when his remaining entry, Belle Shain’s Comeback Shain, successfully completed the grueling Master National hunt test. This was Comeback Shain’s sixth passed national test, which automatically qualifies him for the Master National in Kansas next year.

“I’ve loved these dogs and loved these people for a long time,” he said. “I’ve had some good dogs over the years. I had several that passed national tests. Comeback Shain did very well, especially on the last series.”

Leatherbury has been all over the country to compete in hunt tests and field trials, and suitable venues to hold these events are in short supply. Several years ago Leatherbury contacted former Conservation Commissioner Barnett Lawley about a public area to hold large hunt tests. Leatherbury and Greg Lein, then with the State Lands Division, searched far and wide for a site. Lein came up with an idea and presented it to Lawley.

“Barnett called me and said, ‘What do you think about the State Cattle Ranch?’ I told him I’d be in his office Monday morning,” said Leatherbury, who was accompanied by Read Holland of the Black Warrior Retriever Club, host club for the Master National.

The meeting eventually led to the nomination of the State Cattle Ranch for purchase by the Forever Wild Land Trust about five years ago. The land went through the rigorous Forever Wild purchase procedure and was turned over to the care of the State Lands Division. The land was renamed the M. Barnett Lawley Forever Wild Field Trial Area, which is in two sections with a total acreage of a little more than 3,300 acres, ample room to host just about any field trial or hunt test.

Ample room is the key, according to all those involved. Leatherbury said there were about 50 dogs entered in the first national retriever event he entered.

Holland said there were 712 dogs entered in the Master National, which makes it the largest American Kennel Club performance event ever held.

“It’s been quite a campaign,” Holland said. “The facilities here at the Barnett Lawley Forever Wild Field Trial Area have come together in a great way, very consistent with what Rob Leatherbury and I discussed with Commissioner Lawley. They’ve done everything we talked about and more.

“The community participation has also been excellent. We had the Master National opening ceremonies and both Commissioner Lawley and current Commissioner Gunter Guy were there. This is great publicity for Alabama.”

Holland said it was estimated there would be between 3,000 and 5,000 motel nights associated with the event.

“It looks like it’s going to have a $6 million economic impact on the area,” he said. “And I think there will be other national sporting dog events that will come here, because they were watching what happened here. We predicted that if this was a success, there would be a succession of events of national prominence.

“The feedback I’m getting is they think it’s marvelous. The participants are coming up to me and other Black Warrior members about how fortunate we are to have an area like this to hold events, to train and work dogs. People are very envious of what we have here. It’s a premier facility.”

The Lawley field trial area already has 20 field trial/hunt test events booked between now and May 2013, including the U.S. Championship for pointing dogs, which illustrates the positive economic impact on the Black Belt region.

Leatherbury said the Lawley field trial area has the right combination of terrain and water to make it perfect for retriever competition. But the tract is the perfect place for so much more – youth hunting events, Becoming an Outdoors-Woman deer hunts and other outdoors activities.

“We have a situation where Bill Mason, the manager here, has done a tremendous job of bringing this place back to a natural state, where it used to be used for farming,” Leatherbury said. “Now it’s a natural land area, which is marvelous for hunt tests and field trials. And it’s great that it is being used for youth hunts. We’ve got to get these kids involved in the outdoors.”

To qualify for the Master National, a dog must pass eight hunt tests during a calendar year. All retriever breeds (Labrador, golden, Chesapeake Bay, Nova Scotia), standard poodles, Boykin spaniels and Irish water spaniels are eligible to enter if they qualify.

“Most everybody who is eligible to come will get here,” Leatherbury said. “It’s a big deal. By the time you get here, it’s a very select group of dogs. Alabama is a hunting and fishing state, thank goodness. We’re losing land all the time. One of my favorite places to run dogs was Busch Wildlife outside St. Louis. But they couldn’t keep using it because too many people were on the land.

“That’s why I think this place will be able to stay Forever Wild, as we say.”

John Blackbird, president of the 2012 Master National, said he couldn’t be happier with the Lawley field trial area, not to mention the support from Forever Wild, Black Warrior and the local communities.

“We’ve never been so lucky to have such a great area and such a great support group as Forever Wild has supplied us with,” said Blackbird, who hails from Mora, Minn. “When I came down two years ago after we had awarded the event to the Black Warrior club, I had my doubts. On my fourth trip, I saw the changes and am very pleased. We’ve never been this fortunate to have this wide open of an area to be able to run four hunt tests at the same time and not be able to hear each other. It’s just worked out wonderfully.”

PHOTOS: (By Billy Pope) The tail of a golden retriever sends a string of water skyward after performing a successful water retrieve during the Master National recently at the M. Barnett Lawley Forever Wild Field Trial Area. Rob Leatherbury of Fairhope, one of the people who nominated the area for Forever Wild purchase, had a successful trip to the Black Belt when his dog, Comeback Shain, successfully completed the hunt test. More than 700 retrievers, the majority Labradors, were entered in the week-long competition.