A Midwinter Night’s Dream

This column is reposted in celebration of the life of Mordecai Siegal, a longtime goodnewsforpets.com columnist and friend who passed away on April 1, 2010. It was originally written in 2003 about the Westminster Kennel Club Show that year. A legendary pet writer of over 35 books, he was a constant presence in the Westminster Press Room and also president emeritus of the Dog Writers Association of America (DWAA). He was inducted into the DWAA Hall of Fame in 2007. If you would like to add comments, please post to my blog on this site at http://goodnewsforpets.wordpress.com.To view all 38 of Mordecai’s goodnewsforpets.com columns, click here and for his complete listing of his work, go to http://www.mordecai.com.

The Westminster Week splashed bright colors and beautiful noise in Manhattan this past February despite the purple-gray skies, the unrelenting, bitter cold and the frequent threat of an icy blizzard, which eventually blew into town, after the carnival of dogs and silver bowls draped with purple and gold ribbons. Like the answer to a prayer, Westminster turned a midwinter night’s dream into an exciting reality. There were roars and high-pitched yowls booming from Madison Square Garden that drowned out the subway running underneath. It was a canine rock concert. In 30 years, I only missed the Westminster Week one time and that was because they locked the door to my hospital room. What would life be like without the Super Bowl, the World Series, the Kentucky Derby or the Westminster Dog Show? These cherished sporting events represent the cream of American pop culture and are enjoyed everywhere. In the world of dogs, Westminster is like playing the Palace; it is the big time. These are dogs on Broadway.

Although this, the most glamorous benched dog show in the world, took up two days and two nights, there were so many things to see and do before those 2600 beauties woofed and wagged their way into the record books. Most importantly, there were 10 National or Regional Specialty shows one or two days before the Westminster show. Like planets around the sun, some were held at the Meadowlands in New Jersey (across the river and close to Manhattan) and in a few hotels near Madison Square Garden. These are important dog shows with only one breed competing that are sponsored by their national parent club. For some, winning a national specialty is far more satisfying than winning at Westminster, unless of course we’re talking about Best In Show at the Garden. The specialty shows in and around Manhattan just before Westminster were for the Shiba Inu, Papillon, Petite Basset Griffon Vendeen (PBGV), American Chinese Crested, Bulldog, English Setter, Gordon Setter, Pekingese and the Yorkshire Terrier.

And oh my, there were the parties and formal evening events. The Westminster Week, which usually begins on Friday and wraps up at the Dog Fanciers Luncheon in Sardi’s the following Wednesday, requires suitcases jammed with tuxedos, shimmering gowns, expensive shoes, jewelry, dark suits and dressy dresses. If you cannot get an invitation to one of the hot events then you make your own party, and believe me, there were plenty of those in the hotel rooms spilling out into the hallways, nightclubs, restaurants and even in the Broadway theatres.

The canine corporate world was well represented at their own events days before the show. There were fabulous parties at Tavern-on-The Green, a sumptuous restaurant on the edge of Central Park (in thirty years I have yet to be invited to that one) and the big one at Amy Tan’s huge loft and living space in the heart of Soho. That one is usually for the benefit of the American Kennel Club’s Canine Health Foundation and is peppered with celebrities and prominent members of the Dog Fancy and media. I am usually invited to that one, although not this year. But, that’s show biz.

The Dog Writers Association of America held its annual writing competition awards banquet on Sunday night while at the same time the Westminster Kennel Club held its Judges Dinner, where only Westminster Club members, judges for the show and those on this exclusive A-list get to attend. My dear friend, the late Roger Caras, a member of the club used to tell me about this event, and I would listen like a kid with a bedtime story. And then the next day, bright and early, came the actual Westminster Dog Show, always on a Monday and Tuesday.

For me the best social event happens on Friday night. I’m talking about the Hill’s Science Diet® Winners’ Circle Awards Dinner, black tie and gowns, and by special invitation only. I guess I like it best because I am its Master of Ceremonies and enjoy being the ringmaster, making it all work, like a traffic cop. The best part is looking out at the splendid audience from the lectern, all very active, very important dog show people.

This, their sixteenth annual dinner, is a rarified event because it takes place in a ballroom at the jazzy Marriott Marquis Hotel, in the heart of Broadway. It is packed with the crème de la crème of the dog show world, you know, the people who develop the great dogs and then show them at Madison Square Garden after a tough year of campaigning them around the entire country. The top 10 dogs of the year and their owners, handlers and veterinarians are paid tribute to with videotapes, music and awards. We always expect the next Westminster winner to be one of the honored 10. It is a reasonable expectation because these winners had defeated more competitors in 2002 than all others in hundreds of dog shows. At the very minimum, they had to win over no less than 40,000 other dogs.

The Number One Dog at this awards banquet, Dallas (Ch. Kismet’s Sight for Sore Eyes), an incredible German Shepherd Dog, had actually defeated 86,782 dogs in 2002. The Owners, Don & Betty Lou Wood, Jeffrey Bennett & Nan Eisley-Bennett, Angel Howells, and Mary Ellen Kish were awarded $5,000. The handlers, Jim and Sheree Moses, were awarded $1,500 and the breeders, Dr. Robert & Mary Ellen Kish were also awarded $1,500. They all received and a commemorative plate marking the occasion. Dallas, masterfully handled in the ring by Jim Moses won Best of Breed the following Tuesday. He then went on to win the Best of Group that night making Dallas one of the seven dogs competing for Best In Show at the finale.

Hold it. Not so fast. Best In Show judge at Westminster this year, Mrs. Irene Bivin of Fort Worth, Texas gave that most sought-after win to Mick (Ch. Torum’s Scarf Michael), a Kerry Blue Terrier, the Number Four Dog at the Winners’ Circle dinner. Mick took home Westminster’s coveted satin and silver prizes for Best In Show on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden.

In 2002 Mick defeated 52,500 other dogs. He is owned by Marilu Hansen, entrusted to the celebrated handler Bill McFadden, and bred by Ron & Carol Ramsey. I remember being very touched by McFadden’s acceptance of his Science Diet® Award on Friday night. He is one of the top professional handlers in the world, and his humble feelings were quite stirring.

Those of us who write about the show are given special press ribbons that identify us to the handlers, groomers and staff attending the dogs so that we can get information for our coverage. The press ribbons also give us the privilege of sitting in a special ringside section for the evening competition at long tables accommodating laptops, tape recorders and notepads. For my money, it is the best seat in the house, better than the skyboxes with their breath-taking view, high above the rafters. There is a great deal of camaraderie among those in the media (except for the guy from the NY Times) and it is part of the enjoyment.

One of the things we do in the press section during the glamorous evening competition is speculate on which dog will win Best In Show. It is great fun, and the entire dog press participates (except for the guy from the NY Times). Even our favorite usher, Sal, joins in the game. I picked the German Shepherd, Dallas but my dear friend Sue Jeffries, who is probably the most knowledgeable dog show reporter I know and who freelances for the Louisville Courier-Journal, said in her dulcet southern accent, “Ah think the Kerry Bluuuue, Mick, is probably the most perfect dog ah have evah seen.” I suppose Mrs. Bivin must have agreed because that is the dog she pointed to at the last, edgy moment of the event.

The Westminster Dog Show, like other AKC-sanctioned all-breed shows, is a process of distillation and magnification. They start out with 2500 dogs on average (this year 2,603), all Champions of Record, each competing during the day for Best of Breed. Since 159 breeds were eligible at Westminster this year that is how many dogs made it to the Monday and Tuesday evening Group competition. It is like reducing a wonderful beef stock to a beautiful, purified consommé, into a fragrant essence.

Each breed belongs to one of seven AKC Groups and in the two evening competitions, only one breed wins best of its group. The groups, determined by the American Kennel Club are Sporting, Hound, Working, Terrier, Toy, Non-Sporting and Herding. On Tuesday, the final, exciting and glamorous night of the show, the night of black tie and sequin gowns, celebrities and distinguished dog people, the Group winners, consisting of only seven dogs, compete for the Holy Grail, Westminster’s Best In Show. It is 10 minutes of pure tension at the end of two harrowing days for handlers, breeders and owners of these seven beauties. For some it is the culmination of decades of breeding programs and dog shows.

I have watched these anxious last moments for thirty years and each time I have experienced an emotional charge as if it was happening for the first time. Whenever Mrs. Bivin stopped to take a final look at one of the magnificent seven the crowd cheered and applauded and you could hear singular screams that were the equivalent to a high-pitched rebel yell. It is a sound that I have only heard at dog shows and Civil War reenactments. Then a hush came over the Garden when the judge walked out of the circle and went to the long official table where she secretly wrote down her choice. At that moment, she turned and became part of a solemn group of Westminster officials, comprised of Thomas H. Bradley, 3d, Show Chairman, and two other representatives of the club, all in tuxedos. The official show photographer, John L. Ashbey, waited on the side, equipment ready, to capture the moment. He too wore a tuxedo.

The somber group slowly marched toward the line of dogs, not one more beautiful than the other, like officials at an execution. It took three people to carry out the huge trophies into the show ring. In hand was the Silverplated Trophy for Best Dog or Bitch In Show, the James Mortimer Memorial Sterling Silver Trophy (if the dog was American bred), and the Perpetual Sterling Silver Challenge Cup (given by The Leash if American bred). But it was Show Chairman Bradley who held the prize yearned for by everyone who ever campaigned a dog. He held the long purple and gold Westminster Ribbon, an extravagant flow of satin to be encased in glass and displayed for all time by whoever was going to get it. Their unsmiling manner was all part of the act. The seven dogs were stacked and posed by their handlers who were still competing at this stage. They stared at the judge with laser beam intensity as the officials marched in lockstep toward them. Not a sound could be heard throughout the Garden, where there was not one empty seat. And then the judge pointed to Mick, the Kerry Blue Terrier and the crowd went wild with applause and cheers. I could not hear myself cheering. The officials broke out into wide smiles and the six handlers and their tethered dogs gathered around Bill McFadden and shook his hand as he held tightly to the winner, Ch. Torum’s Scarf Michael. Mick was as excited as everyone else. His firm tail wagged with pure pleasure. Like any good champion, he wanted to win and he knew he had done it.

And so, 2,603 gorgeous dogs, were distilled to one great winner, magnified into celebrity and entered into the Westminster Archives as the best dog for the year 2003, which for me is the world of dogs most significant accomplishment. Mick had become King Canine, and I was lucky to be there.

Mordecai Siegal’s most recent books are “The Good Life: Your Dog’s First Year (Simon & Schuster) and the 10th anniversary revised edition of “I Just Got A Puppy: What Do I Do?” He writes a regular column in the new American Kennel Club magazine, The Family Dog. He is President Emeritus of the Dog Writers Association of America, a member of P.E.N. and the Cat Writers Association.


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