By Evan Dahl
On Feb. 13-14, the oldest purebred dog organization in the United States, the Westminster Kennel Club, hosts the 136th iteration of its annual dog show in New York City. Coming on the heels of a dramatic Super Sunday Puppy Bowl (I found the Bissell Kitty Halftime Show a bit scattered), the prestigious Westminster Dog Show cements February as the favorite month of dog lovers everywhere.
While most viewers will tune into USA and CNBC to either root for their favorite breeds or make light of the eccentric grooming regimens of the puli or Bedlington terrier, a small group of observers have a bit more skin in the game. First, you have the dog show aficionados—those who can recite breed standards chapter and verse and have developed advanced metrics (value over replacement handler?) to predict in-ring success. Then there are the degenerate gamblers—tortured souls who cannot pass up an opportunity to wager on a televised contest of uncertain outcome. It is with these sad souls in mind that I provide the following handicapping guide to Westminster.
Once a footnote in the proceedings, with only three Best in Shows in the 78 years through 2007, the Hound Group has produced the most drama of any group over the past four years with two memorable upsets. In 2008, there was Uno the beagle overcoming a small army of talented poodles. And last year, Scottish deerhound Hickory, a 60:1 long shot, according to the Wynn Las Vegas sportsbook, bested the formidable smooth fox terrier.
With Hickory not competing this year (rumors of a Dirk Nowitzki bender of an offseason are unsubstantiated), it is shaping up to be a two-hound race. We have the establishment candidate: the 2010 group-winning whippet with a taste for the couture (her name is Chanel). And the insurgent: the pharoah hound Qing, hoping for an Arab spring of sorts—his breed has never even placed at the group level at Westminster. My hunch is that, after several years of Cinderella victors in the Hound Group, order will be restored and Chanel will prevail. Look for her paw prints on the sidewalk of nearby Fashion Avenue as she heads to the exclusive Westminster after-party.
Originally bred as companions for nobility, toy dogs are the glamour boys of Westminster. Playing to the hometown high-society types, these pups consistently generate the greatest crowd response and have a penchant for stealing the show. Yet it has been 13 long years since the last Toy BIS winner (Kirby the papillon). Since then, the decades-old rivalry between the diminutive Pekingese and the flamboyant toy poodle has ramped up to a new level, with the breeds achieving four and three group wins at Westminster, respectively. It has been the dog world’s Federer and Nadal feud, generating countless magical moments.
Last year’s winning toy, Pekingese Malachy, will be in the ring again this year, undoubtedly showcasing the infectious dynamism he has displayed throughout his career. He will peer to his left expecting to spot his old poodle foil, Walker. However, word is that the 2010 group winner will be absent and his likely successor does not share as fine a pedigree. But Malachy shouldn’t be overconfident, as a turn to his right will reveal the imposing visage of his Novak Djokovic, Joey the affenpinscher. A native of the Netherlands, Joey brings flair and fitness reminiscent of a Richard Krajicek. This ought to be an epic struggle between two classy canines. What’s more, there is a miniature pinscher competing named Classie, whose impressive résumé may qualify her to be the Andy Murray of this analogy.
The 2012 Toy Group is extremely difficult to call. My crystal ball, though foggy, tells me the affenpinscher reigns supreme.
By definition a collection of misfits, the Nonsporting Group could be excused for having a chip on its shoulder. It’s as if the American Kennel Club could not decide how to categorize these dogs and just threw up their hands and gave up. You have everything from the bulldog to the Lhasa apso to multiple dogs of Tibetan origin. Fortunately, understanding the group for wagering purposes is quite easy. Essentially, it is the standard poodle and everyone else. Over the past 25 years, the standard poodle has walked out of Westminster with the group’s James F. Stebbins trophy on 12 occasions. That is an amazing win rate considering there are 16 dogs in the group. No word on whether the small-market owners are threatening a lockout due to this lack of competitive balance.
The question this year is not whether the standard poodle will be victorious but rather which standard poodle will emerge from the breed competition. The two top nonsporting dogs are both standard poodles: Ally and London. Ally bested London last year but London is coming off of a Best in Show at the high-profile AKC/Eukanuba National Championship. With both of them legitimate contenders not only for Best in Group but Best in Show, this is the most anticipated matchup at the breed level in recent memory.
Predicted winner: standard poodle
Having formed in 1983 as an outgrowth of an overcapacity Working Group, herding is the newest of the seven groups of dogs classified by the American Kennel Club. Despite its relative infancy, the group had an immediate impact on the proceedings at Westminster—thanks to a self-assured German shepherd nicknamed Hatter. In 1987, on his third time representing the group in Best in Show, Hatter elicited raucous support from a New York crowd in search of someone to believe in during the Iran Contra scandal. After a close battle with Devon Puff & Stuff, a dogged bichon frise, Hatter took down first place and put the world on notice that herding was not your run-of-the-mill expansion franchise. Unfortunately, the world failed to listen. To this day, Hatter remains the only Westminster winner in Herding Group history.
There are plenty of explanations for the group’s struggles at Westminster. It could be that dogs bred to handle livestock do not resonate with the east-coast elite in our post-agrarian society. Or possibly the dogs’ obsessive-compulsive tendency to herd, in an arena with thousands of patrons eschewing order, provokes anxiety and distracts from the task at hand. Whether by curse or conspiracy, the herding dog drought is real.
Although the odds of this year’s cohort competing for Best in Show are long, we should be treated to a highly competitive and unpredictable battle at the group level. Two dogs in particular stand out: Roy the bearded collie and Capi the German shepherd. Roy won the group last year and is returning to Madison Square Garden to defend his crown. However, Capi matched Roy with 27 AKC Best in Shows on the 2011 circuit and is coming to Manhattan in excellent form. While these two appear to be the class of the group, I would not suggest sleeping on the Pembroke Welsh corgi, either figuratively or literally. The “PWC” enjoyed a mini-dynasty in the early aughts and the breed rolls deep this year with the precocious Molly and valiant Spencer.
On the silver anniversary of Hatter’s glory, bet on the German shepherd winning the group.
Predicted winner: German shepherd
In essence, dog shows function much like the NFL Combine: Evaluators make inferences about a subject’s talent based on a very brief judging window. While I cannot speak to their Wonderlic scores, Sporting dogs are blessed with supreme athleticism and grace and are thus tailor-made for the Westminster showcase. With 19 Best in Shows—the second most of any group—the dogs are a proven quantity on the green carpet and always worthy of close study.
In 2012, sporting-dog enthusiasts everywhere are pinning their hopes on a silky-smooth 3-year-old out of Dallas. Beckham, a black cocker spaniel, was the No. 1 show dog in the United States in 2011, notching a jaw-dropping 68 BIS’s. Small in stature but oversized in charm, Becks is a prohibitive favorite to represent the group in Best in Show. For those gamblers in search of a dark horse, I suggest the Weimaraner. Dubbed “The Grey Ghost” thanks to its taupe coat, this unassuming small game hunter will need to manifest considerable spirit to best its spaniel adversary.
One of the challenges of predicting group and BIS winners at Westminster is the prospect of upsets at the breed level. Think of it as handicapping a country’s chances at the Olympics prior to completion of the trials. Those who were bullish on the 1992 U.S. decathlon team prior to Dan O’Brien’s foibles at qualifications know what I am talking about. While many breeds have an overwhelming favorite to represent them, there are several where the result is in doubt. Such is the case with the boxer. Scarlett, fresh off of an impressive showing at the AKC/Eukanuba National Championship in December, boasts a remarkably statuesque posture, surely the consequence of an intensive core workout regimen. However, she cannot sleepwalk through her breed competition, as Danny, the country’s third-ranked working dog, is right on her heels. While this battle of the sexes may not carry the antipathy of the 1973 Billie Jean King/Bobby Riggs match, it is appointment viewing for fans on Tuesday morning.
While the boxers grab the headlines, the kuvasz (Tanner) and the doberman pinscher (Fifi) are both sneaky dangerous. Tanner is the top-winning kuvasz in breed history. Meanwhile, Fifi has been red-hot of late with a dominating performance at the Rose City Classic in January. This is a very competitive group.
Ultimately, I think Scarlett runs out of gas after a taxing crucible earlier in the day and Fifi dashes to victory in a minor upset.
It is no accident that the Terrier Group is the final group to show. Having taken home the celebratory bowl for Best in Show 45 times, terriers are the undisputed marquee dogs of the proceeding. The list of breeds reads like a “who’s who” of the canine elite. The Scottie, the Airedale, the wire fox. These clever and gritty pups are masters of progression, consistently establishing new benchmarks for the sport. I am honored to have the opportunity to comment on them.
The story this year is the tension within the fox terrier family. Adam, a smooth fox terrier with a distinctive black and white mug, prevailed last year and was the face of the terriers for much of the annum. However, the wire fox terrier Eira surged in the late fall and early winter with a BIS at the National Dog Show in Philadelphia and a group win at the AKC/Eukanuba show and is now the favorite heading into Tuesday. With hair texture being the primary differentiator between these two, there are some serious Jacob and Esau parallels (Genesis 27:11 for those scoring at home). As if that is not enough drama, the fox terrier breeds have accounted for an astounding 17 overall champions at Westminster. Get your popcorn ready.
I would be remiss not to mention two other contenders who are currently flying under the radar but have the potential to surprise: the prone-to-matting skye terrier Buddy and the fetching Norwich Plum. The dog of my childhood, the miniature schnauzer, once again is but a space-filler on the stage. I’ve had better luck rooting for Clubber Lang than a group win by the bushy-bearded German export. Nevertheless, I’ll be donning my “I Want a Schnauzer with my Wienerschnitzel” T-shirt for the festivities. No bandwagons for me.
Predicted winner: smooth fox terrier
Picking a champion of champions is a humbling undertaking, and I do not take such responsibility lightly. I drafted a pro/con list, ran hundreds of Monte Carlo simulations, even consulted a taciturn short-haired dachshund in my apartment building. Although the members of my projected field are remarkably close in talent, one choice stood out from the rest. Look for the black cocker spaniel Beckham to grab the headlines and the lucrative endorsement contracts on Wednesday morning. Enjoy the show!
Predicted Best in Show winner: black cocker spaniel
Read more: Slate