The winner of the 2018 IGL Retriever Championship talks to Anne McKay about his methods.
Author Anne McKay
Born into a keepering family, as a 12-year-old boy Billy Steel Jnr got his first labrador to call his own. Sadly, this dog passed away at only one-year-old. But his father, Billy Steel Snr, gave him another labrador, a bitch called Kirsty, who went on to be used for beating, ferreting and anything else required. At the age of 14, Billy took the day off school to compete with Kirsty in his first novice Field Trial at Carmichael Estate, near Biggar in the Scottish Borders, and proceeded to win the trophy for the best handler.
The early years
Between the ages of 14 and 22, Billy trained and sold dogs to fund his passion for clay pigeon shooting, which he now laughs about, and says was ‘daft’, but it was what he loved doing at the time. He shot for Scotland in 1994 and still enjoys shooting to this day when he gets the chance.
He became a keeper on the famous Leadhills Estate in South Lanarkshire at 17, and was by then also running dogs in trials for his father, including winning a Novice Stake with Kenue Fir of Leadburn. At the age of 19 he made up his father’s lovely dog, Symington Clarerone of Leadburn, to FTCh at the Scottish Gundog two-day stake held at Kinpurnie Estate, near Dundee, having previously only walked up the burn and shot a couple of rabbits with this dog. His reward? A new pair of Adidas trainers!
Into the big time
A number of very successful dogs were produced by Billy over the next few years. At a couple of years of age Mist of Leadburn won the Gamekeepers National Association One Day Open Stake at Carmichael. Then the first dog Billy took to the IGL Retriever Championships in 1992 was a bitch called Linksview Jet. At 14 months she won a second and a first in Novices. At 15 months she was awarded a DOM in an Open Stake, and was unplaced in her next competition and the following year she was made up to FTCh. She then famously went on to win the very first three-day IGL Retriever Championship held at Holkham in 1996, when Billy was just 28 years old. This was the first dog of four that Billy ran for owner Mrs Reid over a period of 19 years.
Success at a young age
In an amazing achievement FTCh Kenue Cedar was made up by Billy in three days. At two years of age this young bitch won on the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of the same week. And FTCh Kenue Fir of Leadburn was also made up in the same fortnight by Billy’s father. Both of these dogs were bred by Bill Ferguson and his wife, and Billy reckons Croftweit Solo, who was FTCh Kenue Cedar’s dam, remains one of the best bitches he has ever seen.
Bracken of Berrybrae won the Novice Stake at the Gamekeepers National at Lockerbie in 1997, and Billy made him up to FTCh in 1998, before taking the Championship with him in 2000 at Kinpurnie. This was Billy’s second success in the Blue Riband event of the labrador world and he was still only 32.
Seven times at the top table
Success also came in 1997/98 with two daughters of FTCh Kenue Cedar. FTCh Broadlaw Damson won a Novice Stake at 13 months and was made up to FTCh in 2001. And FTCh Broadlaw Eva also won a Novice Stake at 13 months, and became a FTCh before she was two and a half. In 2002, FTCh Broadlaw Eva whelped a litter to FTCh Bracken Berrybrae, and one of them was a black dog, who was named Hillus Clyde. This dog won a Novice Stake at 15/16 months old, was made up to FTCh, and qualified for the Retriever Championships an amazing seven times in his life. There are very few others who can equal this. His best place was fourth in the Championship in 2008 which was held at two estates in the Scottish Borders, Burncastle and Faccombe Estates (Eskdale Shooting).
Hillus Clyde was put to FTW Leadburn Tango, one of Billy Steel Snr’s bitches, and this litter produced the black dog, Leadburn Mist, who was made up in four days, at a couple of back to back two-day stakes. This dog was third generation from Bracken Berrybrae/Broadlaw Eva. He was awarded a Diploma of Merit at the Championship at Lauder in 2013.
The rise of a new champion
In 2014, Annette Usher sent one of her bitches, FTW Spylaw Showgirl of Harperrig, to FTCH Leadburn Mist. Billy had a pup from the litter, but felt it didn’t quite have the edge, and got the chance to buy the litter brother back from Annette at one year old. This dog was Harperrig Breac. FTCh Harperrig Breac is from four generations owned and run by Billy - all of whom have been placed at the Championships, and two have won it. Out of 11 champions he has made up, eight go back to FTCh Kenue Cedar.
Heading south to Packington Hall in the West Midlands for the IGL Retriever Championship in 2018 with FTCh Harperrig Breac, Billy’s vehicle broke down on Shap summit on the M6. Help was summoned in the form of his father and Kevin Haynes and, whilst this was not an ideal scenario, young Billy took his dog and did some training on the moors in torrential rain and strong winds, during the three hour wait for his rescuers.
Supreme dogwork wins the day
On the first two days of the Championship, the dog did everything which was asked of him, with ease, including a second dog eye-wipe on day one. He just got on, and picked everything.
On the third day, it all came alive. His first retrieve was 70 yards and the dog was straight to the fall so quickly that the bird only got about 10 yards further on. Watching his dog on this bird, Billy had a notion that on this day, “the dog was on fire”. Another runner was shot and Billy has huge confidence in this dog on runners. Although he was slightly concerned as he had sight of him for only the first 200 yards and then he was off, out of sight, over the hill. Nobody knew when the bird had actually been picked, as there was nobody over there. The crowd started applauding as the dog re-appeared carrying the bird, and this applause became deafening. Billy couldn’t move for people wanting to shake his hand. He realised he was now in a seriously strong position, and had to keep picking.
The last retrieve was in water, made particularly difficult by the fact that the bird was not in open water, but stuck in the reeds. The previous dog failed. Billy recalled a similar experience and sent his dog. When his dog was about 20 yards from the bank, he gave him a little stop, then sent him slightly left, then ‘back’. Up to the very last little bit where Billy helped, this was raw dog work. He felt it was such an emphatic finish. As he walked back to his vehicle, everybody clapped him all the way, although nothing was, as yet, confirmed. The first phone call he made after winning was to his wife Anne, who was holding the fort back home, and for whose support over the years he is eternally grateful.
How a master works
A very competitive person, about everything, Billy loves the thrill of making up champions. Once a dog is made up, he tends to move on to competing new, younger dogs, bringing them up through the ranks. If a dog doesn’t perform as expected, Billy analyses why and works on helping the dog get it right. Even if he has a bad day he tries to turn the negative into a positive element to work on. He is a great believer in harnessing natural game finding ability, and enjoys watching his dogs raking for birds on shoots. He doesn’t over handle them so he can assess the dog’s raw ability, learn to read each dog, and plan the training for that dog to enhance the instinct it already has.
He feels there is a tendency in trials for dogs to work more from handling than natural ability and likes to see a balance in handling and game finding, and loves to see a dog sort out the end of a run for itself.
Advice for newcomers
He thinks the standard of training has got higher in recent years and, in general, the handlers are also better. In the past there were only a few at the top of their game, nowadays
the awards are more widespread. Having said that, there are often a good number more people competing nowadays – in 1996 at his first three day trial there were around 40, nowadays it’s more like 60.
Advice to newcomers is: “Watch as many competitions as possible before having a go yourself. Be prepared. Speak to people – ask folk why they do certain things certain ways – listen to everybody, and use the little bits which would be good for you. Go to the best for help, people who have a wealth of experience gained over many years with many dogs.
“The only way to gain experience is to get out and do it, read everything, watch everything, see everything – such as, when a bird is shot, work out if it’s going to run before it hits the ground. Why pay for training days when you can go picking-up and learn so much at the same time.”
Will Billy try to win the IGL Retriever Championship again? He’s not too hung up on that. He has qualified 23 times, passed up competing three times in order to judge it and, having first won it at 28 years of age, he is quite possibly also the youngest handler to have claimed the top prize in the entire history of the competition. He is keen to move forward with his current line of dogs. If he can qualify a progeny of FTCh Harperrigg Breac, it would be the fifth generation from that family to have qualified.