It began as usual the last week of February, in an atmosphere that captured the British Ascot and "Animal House" -- with a nod, thanks to the rains, to mud wrestling. Technically the National Amateur Free-For-All Championship is a field trial, held on a south Alabama plantation; this year 72 bird dogs from more than a dozen states exhibited their quail-finding technique before judges and a gallery of spectators on horseback. In fact, it is an extravaganza where the sacred cordially meets the profane.

This is the high holy season for bird dog worshippers, the time of year for the most revered of the 8,000 field trials that take place annually in North America, Hawaii and Japan. The Union Springs championship is one of the country's two most prestigious, according to Dwight Smith, who covered the event for American Field -- "the weekly bible," as he says, "of the field trial fraternity."

It also has the distinction of being "the most fun," says Smith, and therefore draws a lay following of carousers who wouldn't know a pointer from a setter. The opening-day crowd of hundreds was overwhelmed by fraternity boys, the Auburn University sk,1 sw,-2 ld,10 variety, who shouted such witticisms as "I better go find my date -- if you don't lose a date at the field trials, you really haven't had a good time." Kappa Delta sorority sisters, meanwhile, worried aloud about the effects of the muck on their Reebok sneakers.

But by the start of the finals at week's end, the serious bird-doggers had been left in relative peace to roam the plantation on their mounts and observe the rites of the Old World gentlemen hunters, including that peak moment of canine chivalry when a dog "honors the point" of a brace mate (the entrants are worked in pairs) that has beat him to a covey. Pecos Gal edged out Gunsmoke's Vamp for the 1986 championship, earning her master, Montgomery contractor Hoyt Henley, a silver trophy and the far more precious spiritual gratification (also know as bragging rites) of owning the best amateur bird dog in the country.

The Union Springs competition may not have the snob appeal of the National Field Trial, which took place earlier last month in Grand Junction, Tenn., and was featured in the February Town & Country. But Grand Junction, the top trial in the country, is for professional trainers, over whom the bird dog amateurs tend to assume moral superiority.

"If you're a professional dog trainer, you don't have time to do much else," said Dan McArthur, whose 14,000-acre Sedgefield Plantation is the site of the annual Free-For-All, which one trainer called "the Super Bowl" of the amateur trials. "But if you're an amateur," says McArthur, "you've got to love the sport and have the wherewithal to do it. For that reason you will meet nice people here."

"People don't party at professional trials as much as at the amateurs," says Jimmy Hinton, a Tuscaloosa meat-packing and lumber magnate -- and a noted confidant of the late football coach Paul (Bear) Bryant -- who holds a professional field trial at his own plantation outside Selma and has had four winners at Grand Junction.

"The biggest annual event at Union Springs isn't the field trial, it's the field trial dance," said local crop-duster Tommy Paulk, who was at the Union Springs Country Club for the Saturday night gala. Like an extraordinary number of those associated with the field trial, he replied to the question "What do you do?" with "I play golf, play poker."

The Union Springs field trial has been a fascinating mix of town and country every year since Louis (Mr. Bud) Maytag, an Iowa native, held the first one here 36 years ago to see which of his local hunting buddies had the best dog. He had acquired Sedgefield Plantation during the depression, not long after mechanizing a clothes-washing contraption his father invented.

"Mr. Maytag retired at a very early age," said Bill Hembree, a local furniture dealer and dog breeder with seven national champions, who participated in Mr. Bud's first field trial in 1950. "He didn't do anything after that but fly-fish, play golf and hunt."

Maytag's hunting parties used to include Bing Crosby and Dwight Eisenhower, and the area, one of the country's poorest in everything but quail, became a popular hunting ground for the likes of the du Ponts, as well as a center for bird dog hobbyists. Herb Holmes, for one, sold his veterinary-supply business in Springfield, Ill., and moved to Union Springs about 10 years ago to breed pointers, including 41 champions and the 1986 Free-for-All runner-up Gunsmoke's Vamp.

At a cocktail buffet given by McArthur, Holmes waxed philosophical over the dog he had lost during a brace that afternoon -- presumably still out in the field somewhere holding his point (or "locked up") long after the scouts gave up finding him.

Fourteen of the 84 members of the Field Trial Hall of Fame live within 50 miles of Union Springs, according to Hembree, one of this year's two inductees nationwide. But although the area has remained serious bird dog country, it is said that the field trial began to decline following Maytag's death in the late '60s.

McArthur, whose family owns the Wade Investment Co., based in Jacksonville, Fla., with interests in banking, insurance and real estate, bought the plantation from the Maytag sons in 1976 and after five years of management discord fired the old field trial leadership. A power struggle ensued, resulting in the formation of a splinter club for the ousted parties, which are winding up their nonchampionship field trial in Tallahassee, Fla.

Some say that the Union Springs trial has begun to recoup its stature, even if the 1986 entry was down 16 from last year's 88. But it's not like the old days when local families opened up their homes and the gallery was the largest in the world, according to Hembree, numbering up to 750 riders. Since farming converted to tractors, he explained, there just aren't as many horses around to rent to field trialers.

Given the frenetic turn of the social scene, it may be just as well. A few years back some horses died after being run too hard in the mud and heat. The game wardens in evidence at the trial were authorized to restrain people from "riding under the influence."

"It's still the biggest cocktail party on horseback in the world," said Jim Norton, the manager of a neighboring 2,700-acre cattle farm.

"But we haven't had a horse death since then," he said. "We really haven't had a good fist fight."

Norton provided an elegant tractor-pulled wagon for field trial guests who included an heiress from Birmingham, a university professor of public health, the sister-in-law of the publisher of the Tennessee walking horse magazine equivalent of American Field and the super-welterweight karate champion for the southeast. "I thought I was going to be surrounded by rednecks and hicks," said Melissa Crook, a public relations major at Enterprise State Junior College, "but here I am with all these intellectuals."

Which is not to suggest that the guests sat around discussing the geometric integrity of quail flight. "Y'all have some lightning bread with your ribs," Norton said, brandishing a loaf of Wonder Bread -- "nature's own Handiwipes," he said. Union Springs' best barbequed pork was being served en route to a clearing along the field trial course, where hundreds of other nonriding spectators had gathered in their wagons to await the dogs.

Across a soybean field a white pointer cut back and forth rambunctiously. Then the horseback gallery of a couple hundred broke silently over the horizon and finally cantered through the hazy pine at the trial's end, paced by a handler who cradled his dog like a newborn in his saddle. In the crowd one sensed an exultation not attributable to Old Forester -- even if the horses' tails were tied up with duct tape, and a flatbed-truck load of SAE brothers nearby were playing Mr. Mister on the radio.