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Westminster – The Breeder’s Showcase

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Westminster – The Breeder’s Showcase

They say a win is a win. Well, technically that may be true. But that’s like saying there’s no difference between a Sara Lee chocolate cake from your supermarket’s freezer section and a chocolate cake lovingly crafted by Martha Stewart. Not all chocolate cakes are created equal. Not all dog shows are created equal either. When it comes to dog shows with a “storied past,” Westminster stands alone. But why is that?

History. Tradition. Staying power. And to use a crass but effective modern marketing term, brand recognition.

The first Westminster Kennel Club dog show took place on May 8, 1877, making it second only to the Kentucky Derby in terms of continuously held sporting events in the US. (Furthermore, the Derby beats Westminster by only one year.) Westminster quickly became the Holy Grail, to which dedicated breeders, owners, and handlers aspired, and that goal continues to this day, despite a few changes in venue and date over the decades.

Westminster is broadcast live on TV over two nights, in prime time. The Best in Show winner is featured gliding along the trademark green carpet on national newscasts, and gets hugged by all the anchors on the Wednesday morning talk shows. People who know nothing about dog shows, “our world,” recognize the name Westminster. And not just in New York City. That national star power is bestowed on no other dog show.

A Best in Show win at Westminster can and has changed the trajectory of an entire breed, catapulting it to fame, solidifying its standing, or changing misperceptions about its temperament. When black Cocker Spaniel Ch. My Own Brucie, owned by H.E. Mellenthin, won back-to-back Bests in 1940 and ’41, it reinforced the American public’s love affair with the Cocker. The breed topped the AKC popularity charts for many years. Judge Len Carey’s Doberman Pinscher, Ch. Rancho Dobe’s Storm, won Best in Show in 1952 and ’53. Those high-profile wins certainly helped the breed in overcoming its popular but misguided stigma as a ferocious war dog, unsuitable as a family companion. Doberman breeders worked hard to produce a softer, more biddable dog for American dog lovers, and Storm’s back-to-back Bests kept the breed in the public eye. Another impressive Working breed, the Boxer, fared well at Westminster in the late 1940s through the early 1950s, with three different Boxers each going Best in Show: Ch. Warlord Of Mazelaine in 1947, Ch. Mazelaine Zazarac Brandy in 1949, and Ch. Bang Away Of Sirrah Crest in 1951. Boxers, with their appealing blend of big muscles and big hearts, won over American dog lovers and retained a strong position in the AKC’s Top Ten most popular breeds for many decades.

One of the joys of Westminster has always been its unpredictability. It is arguably the only all-breed show in the calendar year where all the top dogs in each breed compete head to head, in the same ring at the same time. And while the odds-makers come out with their predictions, sometimes it’s a “Cinderella” dog that comes through and catches the eye of those three all-important judges at the Breed, Group, and Best in Show levels.

Afghan Hound Ch. Shirkhan Of Grandeur was one of those Cinderella dogs, going Best in 1957. While many show dogs close out their careers at Westminster, Shirkhan was a virtual unknown, at two years of age, with his breeder/owner-handler Sunny Shay. Sunny had sold Shirkhan as a puppy to a young couple new to the sport, but the couple eventually returned him, claiming he “couldn’t win.” During the time he was with those owners, Shirkhan’s sire, Ch. Blue Boy Of Grandeur, was tragically killed by a car while trying to save one of Sunny’s Poodles from oncoming traffic. When he was returned to her, Sunny welcomed him back with open arms, believing him to be a top show prospect. Respected judge Beatrice Godsol had many famous dogs in her Best in Show ring, but something drew her to that young, leggy, shiny blue Afghan. That night he won his first Best in Show. He went on to win many more, even as a veteran. Other Shirkhan descendants have won Best of Breed and Best in Group at Westminster over the decades, and for many years Shirkhan was the top-producing sire in the breed.

Kathleen Kanzler of Innisfree Siberian Huskies was, for many decades, considered a master breeder. But in 1980, it took a brilliant dog man like E. Irving (“Ted”) Eldredge, himself the master breeder of the Tirvelda Irish Setters, to appreciate the red Siberian “Cinnar” (Ch. Innisfree Sierra Cinnar), even with one ear tip missing. Mr. Eldredge confidently pointed to Cinnar for Best in Show, astonishing his owner-handler, Trish Kanzler, the entire Kanzler family, and much of the dog show community. Not all judges are brave enough to look past an honor wound, then or now, but Cinnar that night became another Westminster Cinderella dog.

Julie Gasow was considered “Mrs. Springer Spaniel” in the sport, having bred and shown countless great dogs over decades, stamped with the unmistakable Salilyn look. Ch. Salilyn’s Condor went Best at Westminster in 1993, followed by Ch. Salilyn ‘N Erin’s Shameless in 2000, affirming her position in our sport.

Television viewers and dog lovers nationwide had their hearts stolen in 2009 when one of the rarest breeds in the country, the Sussex Spaniel, won Best in Show under judge Sari Brewster Tietjen. “Stump” was the charmer, more formally known as Ch. Clussexx Three D Grinchy Glee, sitting up for the judge as the crowds filled Madison Square Garden with laughter and applause. At age 10, not only did Stump become the oldest dog to ever go Best in Show at Westminster, he was proof positive that Clussexx Kennels was a force to be reckoned with in the rare spaniels. (Back in 1996, the Clumber Spaniel Ch. Clussexx Country Sunrise triumphed as Best in Show.)

Finally, as with all world-class sporting events, Westminster regulars have endless anecdotes and great stories to share. Everyone has their favorites, but here are two of mine. In 1969, New York City experienced a raging snowstorm during Westminster. Acclaimed Skye Terrier breeder Walter Goodman was trudging through the storm by foot on Tuesday night, holding aloft the Terrier Group winner, Ch. Glamoor Good News. His elderly mother, Adele, was gamely struggling to keep up with her son. When she asked him why he wasn’t carrying her instead, he quickly replied, “Because you’re not competing for Best in Show!”

This one comes from judge and Afghan Hound breeder Ruth (“Babbie”) Tongren. Babbie wrote that she and good friend Sunny Shay often swapped shoes at dog shows when Sunny’s feet hurt after hours of running in the ring. Sure enough, right before Best in Show judging in 1957, Sunny and Babbie exchanged shoes. Recalled Babbie, “Knowing that my shoes went Best in Show at Westminster has consoled me all these years. It’s the closest I’ll ever get!”