Winning Westminster is not for the faint of heart. Just ask professional handler David Fitzpatrick and Pekingese ‘Malachy,’ GCh. Palacegarden Malachy who stood together to face a mob of photographers after being selected the 2012 Best in Show winner at the world’s most famous dog show. Lesser men and larger dogs might have folded under the pressure, but the pair took the madness that comes with the victory in their stride.
Few performers have what it takes to electrify the crowd at Madison Square Garden, but on a cold night in February an 11-pound lion created a roar among the audience as judge Cindy Vogels selected British import Malachy as her choice for Best in Show.
Despite the near rabid attention from the press that immediately erupts after a Garden victory, the seasoned Peke with the cheerful attitude and impish grin seemed only to want for more.
“Malachy, Malachy!” the reporters screamed as photographers whistled loudly to get his attention. “How does it feel to win Westminster?”
Were he able to speak, it would not be surprising had the little dog replied, “I’ll tell you at the after party.”
Popular Dogs Magazine Provides Early Influence
David Fitzpatrick’s introduction to the breed with which he is most closely associated came about at a garage sale. Well, sort of. “I was helping my Aunt Helen clean out her garage, and there was this dog magazine,” he says of the copy of Popular Dogs he found amid the bric-a-brac. “There was an ad in there by a woman who lived in Newark, Del., and showed Pekingese.”
Hermine Cleaver bred Pekes not far from where David’s family lived. “So I wrote her a letter and asked her if she needed any help with her dogs,” David recalls. He was only 14 years old at the time. “She wrote me back,” he says, “and before I knew it, I was going to dog shows all the time with her.”
An interest in dogs, Pekingese in particular, created a bond between the young pupil and his teacher. “She was a great mentor,” David says of the eccentric woman from Holland who picked him up after school and paid him $5 a day to help out in the kennel. “Everything she said made a big impression. She took really good care of her dogs and gave them a lot of personal time. It was a good place to start,” he says.
For the next five years, the two shared the ride to shows on the East Coast. “I had an assistant hander’s license, although you couldn’t go in the ring back then,” he says of his earliest apprenticeship. “I would show only if she was in ill health.”
And so began the handling career of one of this country’s leading breeders and caretakers of the ancient and imperial Pekingese.
A High Profile Breed
“Just like now, a good Pekingese was sort of a high profile breed,” David says of the dogs he started to show in the 1970s. “They were always very competitive and could win a lot. Back then there were a lot of high profile Pekingese owners. They were sort of the dogs that really wealthy people cared about.”
Since the breed had become known in the West, the Pekingese was always a favorite among people of style and sophistication. In 1960, an English import named Ch. ChikT’Sun of Caversham won Best in Show at Westminster at the hands of Clara Alford. ‘Gossie’ was imported by Nigel Aubrey-Jones and later acquired by Mr. and Mrs. C.C. Venable. A career record of more than 100 all-breed Best in Show wins catapulted the red dog into the public spotlight, greatly increasing the breed’s visibility. A decade or so on, David found himself involved with an extremely popular breed.
David worked for several noted Pekingese fanciers as a young man, including Mrs. Jeffords who imported quality dogs from England. The Pennsylvania resident employed staff to provide for the care of her dogs, and David gained valuable experience in the management, presentation and exhibition of these ancient Chinese companions.
“A lot of mystery surrounds the Pekingese,” David says of the breed’s history and lore that have attracted many of the dog world’s most discriminating fanciers since the Victorian era.
Though once a favored pampered pet of the well-to-do in North America and Great Britain, the breed is not as popular in the West today as it was in the 20th century. “People here want dogs that are easier now,” David suggests.“When they were at the height of popularity, it was a different time. Now people don’t want dogs that shed.” In today’s fast-paced culture, David feels the breed just doesn’t suit as many people as it once did.
When asked who would make a good Peke person today, David recommends individuals who are pretty settled. “It helps if they like air-conditioning too,” he jokes, referring to the need to protect the short-nosed dogs from excessive heat. People who grew up with Pekes or whose grandparents had them also make good homes since they’re already familiar with the breed’s personality and grooming requirements.
“They are good with kids, though some might not be as patient as they could be,” says David. And alhough a lot of pet Pekingese don’t always look like those seen in show rings, “they still have the Pekingese temperament.”
“They are an exaggerated breed, so keeping the exaggeration in line is essential,” says David who’s handled many of the breed’s most celebrated show dogs. “It’s a fine line between having the correct typey Pekingese and one that can’t function at all,” he says. “I have to have dogs that can walk, even if people may not think they’re walking.”
‘Like Having a Human Friend’
David was 16 or 17 years old when he got his first Pekingese after his parents realized their son’s desire for a dog was not a phase he’d outgrow. West Winds Cherry Blossom was bred by Alice Wilson in Connecticut. “I met her through Mrs. Cleaver, and she sold me the bitch at a special price – $50.”
“She was not a very good example of a Pekingese,” David says. “But she was a great dog. She was like having a human friend.” David bred two litters out of her. “I enjoyed that,” he says. “I always wanted to do everything. I liked showing. I liked breeding. I liked handling for other people.”
An eager student, David’s immersion in the breed and his association with breeders of note propelled him forward at an accelerated clip. He learned that even small dogs must be athletic, and exaggerated coat can only hamper a dog’s chances of enjoying life at home and success in the ring. “You’re not going to be successful having dogs that just need to be dragged around,” he learned through experience. Toy dogs need to show what they’ve got too. “You want a show dog that’s going to enjoy it.”
“A good Pekingese is always a contender in the Toy Group,” says David, and he should know. For more than 40 years he’s presented a bounty of Best in Show winning Pekes, including seven Top Toys. The list of dominant Pekes shown by David comprises a veritable who’s who list of breed icons: Ch. Briarcourt’s Coral Gable, bred by Joan Mylchreest; his son bred by David, two-time winner Ch. Briarcourt’s Damien Gable; Irene Reasons and Joe Jolly’s Ch. Lakshmi of Jo-Li; the Scottish-bred Ch. Yakee If Only, bred by Burt Easdon and Philip Martin; and Malachy, a Top Toy for two years, bred in England by Jean and Jim Smith.
“Pekes have done better than other Toy breeds at the Garden,” according to David. Malachy, of course, is living proof.
The Biggest Assignment
In 2008, a judging assignment in England introduced David to his future Garden winner. “I had an entry of 117 Pekingese. I was really excited because I’m not a judge here [in the U.S.], he explains. “It’s probably the biggest assignment I’ll ever have in my life.”
“I liked it,” David says of his experience in the center of the specialty club’s ring. “It was surprising, and it gave me some insight into what our judges go through all the time.”
As he worked his way through the classes, he found many of his winners to be of a type that pleased him. “They weren’t exaggerated in coat. They weren’t exaggerated in head. They were really correct. They had everything in just the right amount,” he says.
“The breeder/owners of the dogs he liked were the Smiths. “I didn’t know who they were,” he says, although he had heard of their Pekes. “I gave the reserve ticket to a little puppy bitch of theirs. I gave the ticket to an adult bitch that deserved it. But it was tempting [to go with the puppy.]
“I just liked their dogs,” David says with genuine delight.
After his assignment, David introduced himself to the Smiths and, as any good handler would do, he got around to inquiring if the couple had anything available that could come to the States. “They told me they might have something I’d like,” he says.
When he arrived home in central Pennsylvania, David sent the Smiths an email and they replied with a few images of a promising pup for his consideration. One month later, 5-month-old Malachy arrived at Newark Liberty Airport. “As soon as I got him out of the crate, I knew he was a good one,” Davis says coyly.
“He was all one piece and carried himself well. I was very pleased,” he says with a smile. “It was a good judging assignment,” David says of the trip to England that brought Malachy and him together.
Malachy was shown a couple times by David as a yearling to get a few single points. In Fredericksburg, Va., his newest dog won a Group from the classes under Dennis McCoy. “His next show resulted in a Group 2, followed by a Best in Show from the classes and another Group First, recalls David. The wins came under esteemed judges Jane Forsyth and Polly Smith respectively.
The next show weekend saw David and Malachy in Saratoga, N.Y., where they picked up two more Groups and another Best.
Malachy’s show career was propelled by these early wins. The sensational start raised the attention of many in the dog world, including fellow professional handler Erin Roberts who introduced David to Iris Love and Sandra Middlebrooks. “I met Sandra several times, and she and Iris both came on together,” he says.
David describes the ladies as having been very supportive. “Sandra is a very kind and loyal person who allows her handlers plenty of freedom.” When David asked Sandra if he could enter Malachy in a series of shows, her reply was nothing if not deferential. “Well you know better than I do, David,” she told him. “She really trusts her handler to do the best job you can for the dog.”
Malachy finished two years on the show circuit as Number One Toy and Number Two dog all-breeds, right behind the Smooth Fox Terrier GCh. J’Cobe Kemosabe Vigilante Justice, and the Black Cocker Spaniel GCh. Casablanca’s Thrilling Seduction.
Finishing the year with the Top Toy is a great honor for David. “That’s something I take great pride in,” he says.
Good Enough to Win at the Garden
David’s career record includes six Group Firsts at Westminster: once with Coral Gable; two times with Damien Gable; once again with If Only; and twice with Malachy. Malachy’s Best in Show record totals 115.
Malachy’s 2012 Westminster win ended his spectacular two-year show career. As the reigning ambassador for purebred dogs in America, the 11-pound Toy spent the rest of the year, in part, on a good will tour in communities throughout the country. He and David made appearances at various dog shows where the public was given the opportunity to meet a genuine canine celebrity up close and personal. The little dog with the heart as big as the Imperial Palace showed that his inner light was not restricted to being displayed in the show ring.
“It’s bittersweet when the career ends for a dog that’s been so good to you,” David says with mixed emotions. In his retirement, Malachy has been enjoying the kind of leisure time generally reserved for sighthounds. America’s Peke has been enjoying his visits from a few select bitches in addition to keeping up his personal appearances.
David, who genuinely enjoys his role as Malachy’s gentleman-in-waiting, continues learning about the breed he loves. “Thanks to Facebook, there are Pekingese all over the world that I never knew existed,” he says. “They’re not that popular in the U.S. anymore, and in England they’re not as popular as they once were. But in Eastern Europe and in Russia, and in certain parts of Asia, they’re really popular.” He says that he’s truly pleased to see growing interest in the Peke in those parts of the world.
Always on the lookout for the next great dog, David says he’s grateful that he’s had dogs that have fared so well in the show ring and brought him so many good friends and wonderful memories – including last year’s Garden victory.
“After all,” he asks. “Who wouldn’t like to have dogs that are good enough to win at the Garden?”