The list of champions that professional handler Wood Wornall has piloted to record-breaking wins includes some of the most notable names of the late 20th century. ‘Snooty,’ ‘Billy’ and ‘Mick’ are just three of the names that he helped make famous throughout his 42-year career in dogs.
Wood’s resume consists of hundreds of Best in Show wins, including three victories with three different breeds at the famed Montgomery County Kennel Club show. He’s piloted more than 20 different breeds from five of the seven Groups to BIS wins, and has won countless National Specialties along the way.
The kennel that Wood and his wife, Chris, built in the beautiful Santa Ynez Valley north of Santa Barbara, Calif., has been home to some of the country’s top-winning show dogs. The couple, together with daughter Jenny and assistant Andrew Peel, built a reputation there for preparing their clients’ dogs to realize their greatest potential.
Now on the eve of his retirement from handling, the tall and talented dog man seems eager to begin the next phase of his career. As he prepares to step into the ring again – this time as a judge – Wood reflects on his many accomplishments in the dog sport, and gratefully acknowledges the notable people and celebrated canines that helped to shape his life’s work.
An Influential Photograph
The son of a Kansas City, Mo., banker, Wood grew up without a dog to call his own. His grandfather on his mother’s side, however, had horses and imported Airedale Terriers. Although he never met the man, Wood saw a photograph of his grandfather with his dogs, and this piqued his interest. He decided then and there that he was interested in Airedales.
Wood recalls that he just liked the fact that his grandfather had the breed, known as the King of Terriers. “I thought they were handsome, and I’d heard they were used in World War One.” Although his family wouldn’t allow a dog at home due to his sister’s allergies, the industrious young man found a way to be around dogs just the same. He got a job at a kennel in town where the proprietor happened to have a client who enjoyed some success showing the breed that Wood admired.
Wood’s real involvement with show dogs began through one of his father’s accounts. The Heart of America Kennel Club was organized in 1947 by Mel Schlesinger, a Kerry Blue Terrier breeder who banked with Mr. Wornall. In 1968, Schlesinger’s famous Ch. Melbee’s Chances Are was top dog all-breeds, shown by the well-known handler Ric Chashoudian. “I got to know Mel,” remembers Wood, who asked the club’s president if he could get him a job with Ric. “In those days,” Wood says, “Ric showed more Airedales and won with the breed more than anyone else. So that was where I wanted to go to learn more about Airedales.”
An ‘Amazing’ Apprenticeship
Wood first contacted Ric when he was 17 years old, but his father wasn’t really thrilled about this. “He felt that dog shows were filled with drunks and degenerates,” laughs Wood. So the young man and his father made a deal. Wood could go to work in California only under the condition that he first graduate from high school.
After graduation, Wood spent the first of four summers working for Ric. During the school year he attended Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where he studied political science. His apprenticeship with Ric, however, had become more influential in his life, and by his senior year he realized that showing dogs was what he wanted to do. “I talked to my dad, and he was a bit disappointed,” Wood recalls. And just as happened years before, the Kansas City banker gave his son his approval, as long as the aspiring handler completed his undergraduate studies.
“I got my degree from SMU,” says Wood, “and went to work for Ric full-time for three-and-a-half more years.”
Like many of today’s professionals who apprenticed under Ric, Wood speaks with reverence about his mentor’s ability to present his clients’ dogs. “He was amazing,” says Wood. “No handler in the world was better at conditioning dogs. He was the greatest trimmer I’ve ever seen.”
Wood recalls one of Ric’s favorite sayings: If you take care of your dogs, your dogs will take care of you. “He used to preach that the dogs needed to be fed and go to the bathroom before we were fed and went to the bathroom,” remembers Wood. “He was a fanatic about taking care of his dogs, conditioning his dogs, grooming his dogs,” according to Wood.
Wood says that his mentor was also a great teacher. “Ric had a passion for dogs and dog shows that was unequalled by anybody until the day he died,” he says. “Very few handlers are able to teach. Oh, they can trim a dog beautifully, but they don’t take the time to correct their assistants and teach them what to do. Ric was a great teacher. He may have been brutal at times, but he was a great teacher.”
The legendary man who hired Wood had a great eye for finding dogs as well as young assistants. “A lot of handlers are fortunate in that a good dog will walk up their driveway,” says Wood. “Ric, however, could find a good dog.”
Ric knew of two Welsh Terrier puppies, for example, that were bred by two gentlemen living in Yorba Linda, Calif. “He told me that I could have either one, and I chose Ch. Tujay’s Touchdown,” he says. This dog would become Wood’s first Best in Show winner, under Bill Bergum at the Santa Ana Valley Kennel Club show. “He only won 10 Groups,” recalls Wood, “but he had five Best in Shows, which is a pretty good average.”
The Red Baron Factor
Another example of Ric’s remarkable “eye for a dog” is embodied in the Lakeland Terrier that Wood’s mentor piloted to Best in Show at the Garden in 1976.
Ch. Jo Ni’s Red Baron of Crofton was just 4 months old when Ric first laid eyes on him. “It was around 6 a.m. at the Santa Cruz Kennel Club show and it was very foggy,” recalls Wood. They’d just set up next to Joe Waterman, when out of the fog approached an elderly gentleman known to both Joe and Ric. “The man had a 4-month-old red Lakeland puppy, and this thing was plowing through the grass and fog with tail bang-up and ears up,” Wood remembers. The little dog captured everyone’s attention, and so Joe said to the man, “That’s a nice puppy, how much do you want for it?” When he was told the pup could be had for $250, Joe said he’d think about it and get back to the man later in the day.
So this man and his pup left Joe’s setup and proceeded to visit with Ric. According to Wood, his boss had been watching the young dog the whole time. Ric immediately asked the older man to put the Lakeland on the table where he studied him before exclaiming, “Alright, what do you want for him?” With the $250 price confirmed, Ric whipped out his checkbook and bought the future Westminster winner right there on the spot. “To this day,” Wood states with mild superstition, “I never go to a dog show without a page of checks in my wallet, because I never know when I’m going to see the next Red Baron.”
A Family Affair
While still in his twenties, Wood decided to go out on his own. He’d met his future wife, Chris, while working with Ric, and the two decided to lease kennel space from Corky Vroom. Within six months, a beautiful kennel property came on the market that would become the couple’s home for the next 23 years.
Starcrest Kennels had a long history in show dogs. “It was owned by a very famous Chow Chow breeder with multiple Best in Show winners,” says Wood. “Before him, it was home to Mary Rodgers of Marienberg Dobermans.” Wood and Chris raised daughters Ashley and Jenny there in the company of their clients’ show dogs. And like most handlers’ children, both girls spent at least some time in the show ring.
“Ashley is not a handler,” Wood says, “but she showed a Norwich Terrier to Winners Dog at the National Specialty when she was just 8 years old.” The father who’s won so many Nationals himself describes the win as one of his proudest moments.
Jenny is an accomplished professional handler in her own right, with an ever-growing resume that rivals those of the best. “I derive more pleasure, pride and satisfaction from watching Jenny,” beams Wood, who is quick to acknowledge his daughter’s exceptional ability with dogs. “She can get into a dog’s mind better than anybody in the United States,” he says without a hint of modesty.
The Wornall family includes Andrew Peel, Wood’s dedicated assistant for the past 22 years. “I have had the luxury of knowing one of the nicest human beings and having one of the hardest working assistants that anybody in the country could possibly have,” says Wood. “I couldn’t have done this without him. I couldn’t have eked out these last few years, and I always told him that if he ever quit me, I’d have to quit the same day.”
Wood also credits those dedicated individuals who’ve worked for him through the years. “One of my biggest points of satisfaction will have been the people who have worked for me that have gone on to successful careers,” he says. “R.C. Carusi, Robert Milano, Richard Powell and Todd Clyde have all worked for me, and when I look back, I’m very proud of their accomplishments.”
A Super Sensation
Montgomery County is the place where true Terrier grit is measured, and Wood has piloted three different dogs to victory at this world-famous dog show in southeastern Pennsylvania.
His first win came in 1983 with Wire Fox Terrier Ch. Dynamic Super Sensation. ‘Snooty’ came to Wood by way of Peter Atkinson’s uncle, Herbert Atkinson. “He was a great dog man,” says Wood, who was fortunate enough to have been taken under the Englishman’s wing. “We had a wonderful relationship.”
Herbert phoned Wood one day to say he’d found a wonderful Wire bitch that he should come over and see. “So Chris and I did,” Wood says. “I remember going to Holland with Herbert, and we went to visit a home where these people had a little kennel in the back.” As the visitors entered the building, the bitch they’d come to see was standing transfixed on a table. “I was mesmerized,” Wood insists, “because this bitch was on the table, frozen, and her tail was quivering on her back like a snake. She took my breath away.” Wood turned to Chris and asked, “Can you believe her attitude?”
Chris’ response to her husband’s excitement was definitive. “Stupid, look in the corner,” she said flatly, pointing to a small birdcage. “I was so taken by the dog’s beauty,” Wood insists, “I hadn’t even noticed that she was staring at a canary!”
Wood brought the Wire back to the states and sold her to a wonderful lady. The first time she was shown was at the National Specialty, held in New York at the Armory the day before Westminster. “Ed Jenner was judging, and he gave her the Open Bitch class, Winners Bitch and Best of Variety,” says Wood. “Ric was showing the Smooth Fox, the Brat, that year, and Mr. Jenner carried the Wire all the way to Best of Breed over the Brat!”
“She was undefeated at specialty shows,” according to Wood, and holds a record that will never ever be beaten. “Nowadays, there’s no breed competition at a Fox Terrier specialty,” Wood explains. “There’s the Wire winner and the Smooth winner, but in those days the Wire and the Smooth competed for Best of Breed. Snooty won that 16 times and retired undefeated.” During her career, the Dutch import also won a total of 24 all-breed Best in Shows.
The Legend of Billy the Kid
Wood’s next Montgomery winner came from a spectacular line of Welsh Terriers in New Mexico. “For 10 or 12 years, Nancy O’Neal bred some Welsh that were very, very good,” according to Wood. “She’d produced many winners, but eliminated her breeding program when she discovered epilepsy in her line.”
Mrs. O’Neal ended up getting a daughter out of Wood’s first Best in Show winner, Touchdown, that became her foundation bitch. “She bred on from her,” says Wood, “and was able to establish this legacy in the breed.”
“I saw Ch. Anasazi Billy The Kid when he was young,” Wood remembers. “I tried to buy him then, but Mrs. O’Neal wouldn’t sell him.” Wood had certainly developed his own eye for a good dog, and when he saw the Welsh again some time later, he made his breeder another offer. “The lady still wouldn’t sell him, but she gave me right of first refusal. She was bound and determined to put his first Best in Show on him before she let him go.”
Eventually Billy found his way to Wood, and became the second dog piloted by him to victory at Montgomery. In 1996, Billy the Kid went BIS for owners Lillian and Bruce Schwartz, her son, and he remains the top-winning Welsh of all time with 100 Best in Shows. His older sister, Ch. Anasazi Annie Oakley, is the all time top-winning Welsh bitch, and their sire, Ch. Anasazi Trail Boss, is the top-producing sire in the history of the breed. “I’ll never forget Mrs. O’Neal for being able to start over and produce such incredible dogs,” says Wood.
The Luck of the Irish
The third of Wood’s memorable Montgomery wins owes something to that proverbial Irish luck. Ch. Rockledge’s Mick of Meath, an Irish Terrier whelped in 1993, was one of the best things to happen to Wood since he’d begun handling on his own.
The matriarch of the breed in America, Marion Honey, bred ‘Mick’ with her daughter Linda. “Sometimes you just walk into something,” Wood muses. “Sometimes you go to a show like Montgomery not thinking you’re going to go Best in Show. But then…”
In 1997, Phyllis Haage judged Irish and gave the breed to Mick. Wood recalls, “She liked him, but said to me, ‘This dog is a little bit big.’” He thanked her nonetheless, pleased with the “big” dog’s win that day.
Mrs. Honey passed away shortly afterwards, and the following year’s show was dedicated in her memory. Ken McDermott judged Irish that year and put Mick up for the breed. “We were both crying a bit,” Wood remembers fondly.
As it turns out, Mrs. Haage was judging Best in Show at Montgomery in 1998. “I thought I could go third or fourth under her,” Wood remembers thinking, so he wasn’t surprised when his dog made the cut. But eventually Mrs. Haage narrowed her selection down to the Irish and a beautiful veteran Airedale.
Mrs. Haage pulled out the Irish and said, “Take him down and back.” Wood recalls with astonishment that his dog did something that day that he’s never had a dog do before or since. “He goes down,” Wood recalls, “and when he walks back, he put his ears up and just stared at Phyllis Haage,” who somewhat resembled the dog’s late breeder. People outside the ring immediately responded to that red dog standing center stage.
The Irishman must have seemed especially “big” in that moment. “When he did this, I just got as far away from him as I could,” says Wood. “There was nothing that I could do better than just watch him in that moment along with everybody else.” Needless to say, Mick was Mrs. Haage’s winner that day.
Showing for Marion and Linda Honey has been one of the luckiest things that ever happened to Wood. “They’ve bred great one after great one,” he says. “Mrs. Honey was fanatical on keeping to the old bloodlines, and didn’t breed to the current big winner.”
Rockledge has produced a total of eight all-breed Best in Show winners, a terrific record for a breed not known for its glamour. According to Wood, “It’s the greatest Irish Terrier kennel in the history of the breed.”
The Future Looks Bright
Wood and his daughter, Jenny, are the only first and second-generation professional handlers to go Best in Show at Montgomery. “I’ve been lucky enough to go BIS three times, and Jenny went BIS once. We’re the only father-daughter team ever to do that,” he says with pride.
When his daughter began to demonstrate her own skill with dogs by doing a lot of winning with Ch. Evermay’s High Performance, the Airedale she showed to Best at Montgomery, Wood was asked by a contemporary, “Doesn’t it bother you that your daughter beats you all the time?” The proud father responded incredulously by saying, “You must not have children. Watching her win is so much more rewarding to me than any of the wins I’ve had.”
On the wall of his grooming room hangs a photo of Wood hugging Jenny after her 2007 Montgomery victory. Wood describes the image by saying, “I’m hugging her so hard, that her feet are off the ground. I’ll never forget that moment for as long as I live.”
Wood says he’s confident that Jenny and husband Christian Rangel will become a successful handling team in their own right. “Christian is one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met,” Wood says of his son-in-law. “He’s amazingly talented, and he’s a great trimmer who’s very calm and smooth as a handler.” Wood seems confident in Christian’s business and organizational skills, just as he is in Jenny’s masterful skill as a handler. “Yes, I’m her father,” Wood admits, “but some of the great judges down the line have told me how extraordinary she is at what she does. I think she and Christian are going to be a really great team.”
Like every supportive parent, Wood says he worries about his family’s health and safety. “The sport is unbelievably tiring. You drive all night long, and so I worry in private that they will remain safe when they’re doing this, and I’m not there to drive the truck,” he confides. Wood says that he’s advised the young couple on dealing with clients, and he’s explained how it’s best to behave with judges. “I’ve tried my best to point the two of them in the right direction, and I’m confident that they’re heading that way,” he says.
The Next Chapter
When asked about his state of mind as he retires from handling to begin his judging career, Wood confesses to feeling a bit nervous. “I have examples of judges whom I’d like to emulate, including one of the greatest of all time, Mrs. Clark,” referring to the late Anne Rogers Clark. Jim Reynolds, Edd Bivin, Virginia Lyne and Michele Billings are among those judges that Wood says he’d like to keep in mind as he’s officiating. “I want to take judging very, very seriously,” he says. “I want to go into judging the same way I went into handling. I want to be the best judge that I can possibly be.”
“This business, as hard as it is,” Wood reflects, “affords people an opportunity to still feel good about themselves, and be challenged.” Even though he says he can’t run around the Airedale ring anymore, he still has the knowledge that he worked to learn over the past 42 years. “I feel good about that,” he says with pride. “When I wake up in the morning, I’m going to be challenged, both mentally and physically. I’d like for people to think of me as a good and honest judge.”
When it comes to the next chapter in his life, Wood is most excited about spending more time with his two granddaughters, Brynlee and Stella. “I’m going to have the time to give to my granddaughters that I didn’t have to give to my own two daughters.”
“It’s hard to be a good husband and father in this business,” Wood confesses. “So I’m just bound and determined to be the best grandfather that those two little girls can possibly have.”