I last visited Westminster in 2010 when I judged several exciting breeds at Madison Square Garden. Two years ago a trip was planned as a spectator but the weatherman decided otherwise and after several flights were cancelled I returned home to watch the great show via live-streaming online. This year, despite alarming forecasts, I arrived on Wednesday at New York’s JFK airport where surprisingly the sun was shining, though it was bitterly cold. I had been invited to judge three breeds for the Progressive Dog Club on the Friday and a French Bulldog specialty on the Sunday but these will be covered elsewhere. So, in sub-zero temperatures Stuart Pearson and I set off from the Affinia Hotel on Monday morning for Pier 92 – a half-hour bus ride away from The Garden venue itself but the dog show organisers had arranged frequent shuttle buses throughout the day which worked very efficiently.
When I judged for Westminster all the breed judging took place in the main area of Madison Square Garden. Some rings were on the small side, it was very congested, but the atmosphere at that show was like no other I have ever encountered in my 50 plus years in dogs. I wondered what awaited me at the Piers. The rings were huge and access was much better but the breed judging is spread out and if you wanted to get from one ring to another it took far longer than it would have done at The Garden. Also there wasn’t the same exciting buzz that there used to be and quite frankly the breed rings looked just like another big American dog show but with Westminster branding.
Breed entries can also surprise a British visitor who has never been to Westminster before. Some drew just single figures and the largest entry on Monday was 43 Australian Shepherds. On Monday I spent most of my time around Pugs, Bulldogs, French Bulldogs, Shar-Pei and of course Standard Poodles where Ricky was being shown and looked magnificent but sadly he failed to impress the judge as much as did the ringside.
Strolling around the benching area at the Piers proved quite enlightening and it is quite obvious that a blind eye is turned to the use of ‘products’ on so many breeds, many of which seem to get ‘enhanced’ beyond recognition. From a judge’s perspective nothing is more satisfying that having a succession of dogs that are well trained, beautifully handled and impeccably presented but sometimes the grooming can be a little over the top for our eyes and tastes.
The Westminster experience centres around the group judging of course and this show has a huge profile with the general public – there were very few empty seats in the vast tiers of the main ring when groups began at 8pm, unlike Crufts where the big ring seems to empty dramatically when agility, flyball etc is over and the serious business of conformation judging begins. That said, there was huge support for the ‘Meet The Breeds’ event on Saturday which was held at The Piers, this equating to our Discover Dogs.
The first group to be judged was hounds where Betty-Anne Stenmark was in charge. From ringside this looked like an interesting group. I was very happy to see that both Beagles (13 inches and under and over 13 inches) were my BOB winners from the AKC/Eukanuba show in Orlando last December. It was wonderful to see Pat Craige Trotter in there with her latest Vin-Melca’s Elkhound as Pat is not exactly in the first flush of youth but can still hurtle around a big ring with the energy of a teenager. The PBGV was bred by Gwen Huikeshoven in the Netherlands and is co-owned by the ubiquitous Ping Ping Panda who was in New York to share the excitement. I thought the Saluki looked very handsome and while I know nothing about the breed the Black and Tan Coonhound seemed quite charismatic and was an impressive mover. The Sporting Field Whippet bitch I had admired in Orlando and she too was in there so there were plenty to play with.
The group judging technique at The Garden is pretty regimented – a short list of eight, one more circuit individually to study profile and then the judge points and places. In view of the Americans’ love of excitement I have often thought how much more of a climax could be built by placing the winning four in order and taking them around the ring together, then pointing on the move.
Betty-Anne’s winner was a hugely well accepted one in the 15 Beagle Ch Tashtins Lookin For Trouble, handled by the ever-popular Canadian Will Alexander and co-owned by her Canadian breeders the Crandlemires and long-time Beagle aficionado Eddie Dziuk. Second was the Bloodhound Gr Ch Flessner’s International S’Cess, who had done so marvellously in Orlando, third the free-moving Otterhound Gr Ch Aberdeens Under The Influence, while I was delighted to see the Black and Tan Coonhound Gr Ch Bayaway Jersey’s Due Process Of Law make up the quartet.
Elliott Weiss was next on with the toys – he judged BIS here in 2010 when the Scottish Terrier bitch Sadie won. Sadly as the group came in David Fitzpatrick’s Pekingese who was a hot tip to win this group seemed to have been spooked by something so David, ever the professional, asked if he could withdraw. That would have taken a lot of strength of character but was of course the wisest decision.
The Affenpinscher was a Banana Joe son, bred by the Truesdales, Beth Sweigart and Letisha Wubbell. The Cavalier was a son of Ch Lanola Santana of Maibee. Both Chihuahuas impressed. The Chinese Crested BOB was a Powderpuff bitch who had been my BOS at Progressive on the Friday. There was much hilarity when the ‘Toy Manchester Terrier’ (English Toy Terrier to us), having completed its individual, leapt into the group winner’s box in the centre of the ring, much to the amusement of handler Marcelo Chagas. The Papillon looked a real one and the Pug put on a great performance. The Shih Tzu is a well-known winner and was not presented as dramatically as some you see in the US. In my coverage of Orlando I mentioned the conversation I had with his handler Luke Ehricht who is determined to present his dogs more sensibly these days. I don’t profess to understand Toy Fox Terriers but thought the winner was a very smart example.
Elliott’s winner was the Shih Tzu Gr Ch Hallmark Jolei Rocket Power, bred by Canadian Luke Ehricht and his wife Diane Ehricht and co-owned by them and Patricia Hearst Shaw. Second was the Pomeranian Gr Ch Hitimes What The Inferno, third the Yorkshire Terrier Gr Ch Trio’s Big Shot, and fourth the Havanese Gr Ch Love’s Havaheart Los Goodfellas.
Non-sporting was the next group with Shirley Limoges from Canada in charge. I didn’t feel this was the strongest non-sporting group I’ve ever seen in the States but there were some interesting dogs in contention. I don’t profess to ‘get’ American Eskimo Dogs but the BOB winner’s record of seven consecutive Westminster BOBs sounded impressive. The Bichon Frisé looked worthy and is the latest to be shown by Scott Sommer who handled the 2001 BIS-winning Bichon, JR. The Shar-Pei was the bitch who is evidently the ‘winningest’ in the breed. Interestingly the Chow Chow was a two-year-old class dog (non-champion) that had travelled from Beijing, China. He is apparently China’s Number One all breeds so I can only assume that the country’s homeland is now accepting of a rather untypical gait and balance.
Cotons de Tulear were scheduled at Westminster for the first time (another mystery – why are they in non-sporting and not toys?) and the BOB was handled by Ernesto Lara who of course piloted Banana Joe through to BIS here. The French Bulldog had won an award of merit under me at the Sunday specialty.
The Standard Poodle was Flame, the big winning Canadian bitch – her dam Spitfire won BOB under me here in 2010. The daughter doesn’t excite me as much as her dam did, but then she was an exceptional creature. I liked the look of the Xoloitzcuintli and the Schipperke also had great appeal at rising 11 years of age… what lasters Schipps are.
Shirley could not get past the Canadian Standard Poodle Gr Ch Dawin Hearts On Fire, owned by genius breeder Linda Campbell and handled by Sarah Perchick. Second was Gr Ch Bayshore Georgio Armani, the Xolo that had taken my eye, third the Bichon Gr Ch Saks Winning Card, and fourth the evergreen American Eskimo Gr Ch Nuuktok’s Atka Inukshuk, putting another feather in Canada’s cap.
The fourth and final group on Monday night was herding where Klaus Anselm was the judge. This was an exciting group to watch and I was very keen to see how Swagger the Old English Sheepdog fared as, despite the fact that he may be a little more scissored than we are used to, he is a magnificent example of the breed who is always handled and moved so perfectly by Colton Johnson whose family bred him. Since Westminster last year he has been backed by Ron and Debbie Scott, Ron in the past having been associated with several top winning Smash Toy Poodles.
The Australian Shepherd who topped the largest breed entry was handled by Larry Fenner whom many will remember in the group ring at Crufts some years ago. The Border Collie is owned and bred in China but combines American and New Zealand lines, and was handled by Clint Livingston who I still remember coming to Crufts to represent the US in the International Junior Handling finals… now he has children of his own!
The Pembroke Corgi bitch with Bill Shelton made a very impressive picture but the Old English blew me away. He really put on a flawless performance and again I greatly admired the way Colton moved him, refusing to fly around the ring at breakneck speed, preferring to demonstrate the breed’s typical gait. The German Shepherd was certainly a crowd pleaser but struck me as more Alsatian than GSD.
The Hungarian Puli BOB was bred in the UK by Pete and Jacki Evans, Gr Ch Zaydah Guns A Blazing, and looked very well.
Ultimately it was the Old English Sheepdog who won, to the delight of the crowd. Gr Ch Bugaboo’s Picture Perfect is owned by the Scotts jointly with breeders Colton and Heather Johnson. What a career Swagger has had – two years ago he won reserve BIS at Westminster from the classes, not even a champion; now he is the top winning Old English of all time! Second was the Bouvier des Flandres Ch Stonepillar’s Steel Blu, third the Australian Shepherd Gr Ch Copper Hills No Reservations, and fourth the German Shepherd Gr Ch Lockenhaus Rumour Has It v Kenlyn.
So ended the first night of Westminster. Many decided to party on in the various hotel bars. I opted for loading pictures and getting to bed as by now I had practically lost my voice – a combination of talking too much and moving from greatly contrasting temperatures I suspect.
It was a rather more leisurely rising on Tuesday when I spent more time in Pier 94 watching Siberian Huskies, Bullmastiffs, various gundog breeds and Leonbergers which were judged by Finn Satu Yla-Mononen, the only judge at the show not to come from the US or Canada. She also had Great Danes, Rottweilers, Greater Swiss Mountain Dogs, Newfoundlands and Bernese Mountain Dogs so a very full day.
The first event in the big ring was the junior showmanship finals where the maturity of some of the talented youngsters seemed unnerving. It was Lydia Frey, handling a Bedlington, who eventually won in very hot competition under Michael Dougherty.
Ken Murray was the first to judge a group proper on Tuesday and I confess that it is the sporting (gundog) group that gives me the most problems in the US as so many seem to be quite dramatically off-type compared to what we expect in the breeds’ country of origin. Having said that I had been impressed with some of the English Setters I’d watched earlier and thought the BOB winner, while much more heavily coated than we would like, was a very handsome dog and not too extreme.
There were however several that took my eye. British Brittany purists may be horrified but I was very impressed with the BOB winner, another handled by Clint Livingston. The German Wirehaired Pointer looked great going around, covering ground effortlessly. Not surprisingly the Chesapeake was a good one, though a very young bitch. The Curly also had something about him. The Golden Retriever I felt was more in line with our idea of the breed than some I’ve seen winning in the US, was free moving and balanced. Lisa Weiss owner-handled the BOB Labrador – she is well known to many British Labrador people and was attending her 45th Westminster. The Clussexx Clumber Spaniel looked wonderful and moved so well with great presence. I think this is the same dog who won BOB under Frank Kane at Westminster two years ago. Doug Johnson of Clussexx note also bred the Sussex BOB winner.
English Springers in the US, despite having a very detailed breed Standard which describes the British English Springer perfectly, are generally far removed from what we think of in the breed and this year’s winner was no exception. The ‘English Cocker’ was a free mover and very merry. I was pleased to see that the Weimaraner did not have an exaggerated keel like so many do in the US.
One of the most irritating aspects of watching the sporting group for me was the habit that so many handlers have of folding their dog’s offside ear over its face when the judge is looking at the profile. I am told it is to emphasise the dogs’ length of neck, but surely judges have eyes and hands? In any case I think it looks silly and ugly.
Once Ken had got his short list I felt it would be a two-horse race between the Clumber and the Brittany but he opted for the ‘English’ Springer Spaniel Gr Ch Wynmoor Sweetgrass White Diamonds, owned by Erin and Billie Kerfoot and Alison Smith, handled by Janice Hayes. Second was the Black American Cocker, third the Clumber and fourth the Irish Setter.
Working came next with Terri Hundt judging who made a name for herself in the past as a great Dobermann handler. This isn’t the biggest group but there were some great dogs competing. All eyes were of course on Matisse, the legendary Portuguese Water Dog, who was on splendid form. The Akita was a powerful mover and the Alaskan Malamute of excellent type. The Boxer was the bitch handled by Diego Garcia who had been my BOS in Orlando. The Bullmastiff had impressed me greatly in the breed ring and I liked him even more in the big ring – substantial, agile and with a pleasing head. He was only 17 months old but I reckon a lot more will be heard of Ch Johari’s He’s All The Money On Wallstreet.
The Giant Schnauzer handled by Vicki Seiler had great presence and I thought the Leonberger was a very strong contender – he is a service dog to boot. The Komondor had everyone lost in admiration for the hard work that must have gone into his presentation and he was a very impressive example of the breed. I felt the Newfoundland was a real eyeful – so light on his feet and not as overdone in head and lip as some American Newfoundlands. Andrew Green had wife Amy’s Samoyed in the peak of condition and he put on a sterling performance. The Siberian was from China and was not as short-legged as so many are in the US.
I was delighted to see on the video coverage that Terri made a point of asking the handlers in her shortlist to move their dogs around "not too fast”, and they complied. Winning, to no surprise – it was his third consecutive Garden group – and well deserved, was the Portuguese Water Dog, Gr Ch Claircreek Impression de Matisse, owned by Milan Lint, Peggy Helming and Donna Gottdenker and handled by Michael Scott. Second was the Leonberger, third the Bernese whose owner was sat with us and had persuaded Joanne Graham and Fiona McDonald to whoop and holler for his dog, and fourth the Chinese owned Siberian. Matisse is of course Canadian-bred and co-owned so the neighbouring country’s chances of BIS improved even further.
Although we still tend to think of terriers as being the most British of groups I have to say that in recent years this is the group that has impressed me most in the US with so much depth in so many breeds. This year it was Canadian vet John Reeve-Newson who had the honour of sorting out the terrier group and he was spoilt for choice. Needless to say Victor Malzoni had made his presence felt in this group as his name was on both the Smooth and Wire Fox and of course the AKC Eukanuba National Championship BIS-winning Skye. Early on in the group the Bedlington delighted the crowd when he did a Ricky-like bow/stretch but then so had Matisse the Portuguese Water Dog. This endearing habit is catching on!
The Cairn and Coloured Bull appealed and while the Miniature Bull wasn’t the smallest he had great ring presence. The mustard Dandie Dinmont I liked enormously and I was interested to see that she was co-bred by Betty-Anne Stenmark, the hound group judge. The Smooth was as smart as paint and the Wire looked handsome too, a son of Travella Starlord. The Irish Gr Ch Irvonhill Leave It To Me, was bred by Tony and Jean Barker from two of their Fleet St imports, and is co-owned by Tony. I wondered what Una Rigney – veteran Irish Kerry Blue expert – had made of the Westminster BOB; Una was visiting Westminster for the very first time. The Lakeland looked very decent and the Russian-owned Scottie bitch (aptly named From Russia With Love) had a great following.
The Maestro Peter Green was in there with the Norfolk with whom he won BIS at Montgomery last year, a descendant of Coco, Peter having won four Garden BIS over the years. I thought the Parson looked very typy but of course a crowd favourite was the Russell (for some reason ‘Jack’ was never incorporated into the breed’s American name). This breed is hugely popular around the world yet our Kennel Club has yet to recognise them … I am sure it will come with time. Charlie the Skye Terrier was, I felt, going even better than he did when he won best in Orlando and he was another to have no shortage of support ringside. The Westie has two Ashgate parents and carried the Ashgate kennel name but was bred in the US so I wonder if Sue Thomson has an American partner? The Staffordshire I felt looked a lot of dog.
John obviously had his work cut out but wasted no time in getting down to a short list. Charlie continued to dominate as he pointed to Larry Cornelius who was handling the Skye, Gr Ch Cragsmoor Goodtime Charlie, owned by Victor Malzoni and Cragsmoor Kennels. Next came the Welsh bitch followed by the Norfolk and the Dandie. The Dandie’s handler, Carlos Puig, had received a standing ovation when he won Professional Handler of the Year at the Showdogs of the Year Awards which Stuart Pearson and I had attended at the vast Gotham Hall on Saturday evening.
And so the scene was set. No dancing dogs or gimmicky displays, we got straight on with best in show which historically went to a first-time BIS judge, the Hon David C Merriam, long-time Bull Terrier devotee and a protégé of Raymond Oppenheimer. I couldn’t help wondering if David was thinking of Raymond’s rather outlandish belief that when someone first expressed a desire to judge they should start with a best in show where, in theory, they will be presented with a selection of excellent dogs and whatever they do they will do no harm. After fulfilling several BIS appointments Raymond felt that judges could then progress to judging groups where their ability would be more tested. Once they have proved themselves at group level it was Raymond’s firm belief that only then should they be trusted with judging at breed level, as this is the most important level of judging and where the most damage to breeds can be done. It may be impractical but the logic behind it is truly admirable.
As the seven group winners entered the big ring all had great ringside applause – remember this is Westminster! – but it would be fair to say (especially having re-watched it on video) that Swagger the Bobtail would have swung the clapometer. From the seating the yells of "Swagger, Swagger” were worthy of any visiting pop star.
David marked his book, then was escorted into the ring by Tom Bradley and Sean McCarthy where he made a moving speech about the history of Westminster and the quality of the dogs before him.
Reserve BIS (since the award has been introduced) is customarily declared first and the bridesmaid spot went to Charlie the Skye. There was a brief lapse when everyone assumed that the big one was going to either Matisse or Swagger, but there was great rejoicing and much waving of maple leaves when David said "The Beagle”, and out came ‘Miss P’ with a for-once-speechless Will Alexander.
Will I have known since he was a youngster and he was always held in high regard by my idol and mentor, Nigel Aubrey Jones. He is the consummate professional, dedicated to the sport and popular with his clients, peers and judges alike. I am convinced that Nigel was looking down, smiling with a combination of pride and the mischief that never left him.
2015 was certainly the year the Canadians cleaned up at The Garden.