The weekend before Westminster the whole dog world is naturally wondering what will happen on Tuesday night during Best in Show at Madison Square Garden. I’ll be there, I’ll be watching, and I hope to help report from the show for BIS Daily – but as a counterweight to all the predictions about who will (and won’t) win, today might be a good time to reflect for a few minutes on some of the winners from past years.
In our fast-paced society, the memory of anything that happened last year, or even before that, is usually lost. Dog shows aren’t so different from most other activities: Who remembers the Top Dog from the year before last? Can you recall who was Number 1 in your breed, say, six or seven years ago? Yet the new Westminster BIS winner’s name will be added to a long list of past winners that’s studied and memorized by everyone who’s serious about dog shows. Many of us claim bragging rights by having even a slight connection to any of these dogs – maybe one that consists simply of competing in the same ring as a handler who won once, or having a dog with a past Westminster BIS in his pedigree, or even just having been there in Madison Square Garden watching a special dog win.
The list of past winners is published each year in the Westminster catalog. It is reprinted endlessly everywhere else, and truly consists of the crème de la crème in our sport. Like no other dog show, Westminster has worked its way into mainstream media. It’s featured in the title of several books, including one of my favorites: “The Winning of Westminster.” (It’s a hilarious period piece from mid-1900s America. Get it on Amazon if you can.) There’s even a whole book devoted to Westminster – William F. Stifel’s coffee table extravaganza, “The Dog Show.”
Not many activities can boast 137 years of uninterrupted activity. We all know Westminster is the second-oldest sporting event in the U.S., after the Kentucky Derby, as you have probably heard many times already. A lesser-known fact is that Westminster is also several years older than its equally famous British counterpart, Crufts. (The first Westminster was held in 1877; Crufts dog show didn’t come along until 1891.) How many other American institutions are even older than the British version?
For Westminster’s first couple of decades, in the late 1800s, there was no Best in Show competition at all. Dog show rules were very different then: there was not always a clear-cut Best of Breed award, and Best in Show could on occasion go to a dog which had been defeated in an earlier class at the same show. The first Westminster BIS winner that I’m aware of was an English Toy Spaniel, Ch. Darnall Kitty, who won in 1904, but the published list of past winners begins in 1907. The Smooth Fox Terrier Ch. Warren Remedy who won that year also took BIS at the next two Westminsters, creating a triple threat that has never been equaled. Remedy came back for a fourth try, but was then defeated in her class (yes, champions were shown in the classes then). The one who defeated her in 1910, another Smooth Fox Terrier bitch, was Ch. Sabine Rarebit, who also went on to BIS. (Terriers dominated even more heavily in those days than they did later on: 13 of the first 15 Westminster BIS wins went to Terriers.) Rarebit was owned and bred by a cattle rancher all the way from Texas: how long did it take for him to get to New York in those days?
The list of winners continues with only one interruption to the present. Why was there no BIS winner in 1923? The show had 1,827 dogs that year and seems to have gone off as usual in all other respects. The New York Times wrote: “There was no competition this year for the best dog in the show. In other years this was the high point of the exhibition, but […] it must have been pretty tough on the judges. Fancy the competition narrowed down to a Bulldog and a toy Maltese or between a Mastiff and a Chihuahua?”
A New Judging Method
One reason for the non-awarding of BIS could be that this was when AKC overhauled the method of selecting Best in Show, introducing the orderly progression from Best of Breed to Group competition that’s still employed, with only the undefeated Group winners competing for BIS. (In those days, by the way, there were only five Groups, not seven as today, but the number of breeds was much lower as well.)
In 1924 the winner was the Sealyham Terrier Ch. Barberryhill Bootlegger, so named probably because of the Prohibition era which outlawed the consumption of alcohol, starting in 1920 – the year Bootlegger was born.
One of the most interesting winners in Westminster history appeared just a few years later. The Rough Collie, Laund Loyalty of Bellhaven, had been recently imported from England and created a stir by going Best in Show from the Puppy class in 1929. (This, of course, could not happen during the many years Westminster was limited to champions, but is at least a theoretical possibility again this year – although the win would have to be from the Open class, as no Puppy classes are offered.) Loyalty is listed as a champion in recent Westminster catalogs, but he was in fact never shown again after his big win. Various reasons have been given for this; one of the more lurid was that Loyalty’s owner, Florence Ilch, received death threats toward the dog from a disgruntled competitor.
It was in fact not completely unheard of for a brand-new dog to go Best in Show at Westminster. In 1937 the great handler (and later judge) Percy Roberts won BIS with the Wire Fox Terrier Flornell Spicy Piece of Halleston, “fresh off the boat from England,” and two years later Geraldine Dodge did the same with the fiery Doberman Pinscher import from Germany, Ferry von Rauhfelsen of Giralda, most likely handled by Mrs. Dodge’s kennel man, McClure Halley. Both dogs won their champion titles, and Ferry took a large number of all-breed Bests as well, but his story has a tragic ending. Ferry was obviously not easy to deal with; he went from one owner to another and after a couple of years ended up dead, reportedly from the hands of his handler in California. Exactly what happened was never made clear; perhaps Ferry attacked his handler, but the lawsuits that followed didn’t bring the dog back.
Most Westminster stories have a happier ending. There was the fantastic trio of Boxers who won in the 1950s: Ch. Warlord of Mazelaine, Ch. Mazelaine’s Zazarac Brandy and Ch. Bang Away of Sirrah Crest, all of whom had a major – and very positive – impact on the future of Boxers. Seldom has any breed caused such excitement as Boxers did in those days: Zazarac Brandy was considered the greatest show dog ever, bar none, until ousted from his throne by Bang Away, one of those dogs who had such an effect on spectators “that you just couldn’t take your eyes off him,” according to one spectator. The handlers were not friendly, but Brandy’s owner in a supreme act of sportsmanship commissioned a drawing showing their dog, the old king, handing the crown to Bang Away. He was, incidentally, the first dog ever to win a hundred AKC all-breed BIS.
Then there was the 1956 winner Ch. Wilber White Swan (‘Peanut’), a white Toy Poodle who was shown by Anne Rogers Clark, the first female professional handler to win Westminster. The next year there was an even bigger upset when Sunny Shay won with the young Afghan Hound Ch. Shirkhan of Grandeur – a breeder/owner-handler who was, shall we say, from the wrong side of the tracks, and the first Hound BIS at Westminster to boot. (If you don’t know who Annie Clark or Sunny Shay were, you must be very new to this sport: both ladies are now gone but their impact is still felt.)
1960s and Beyond
Now we’re up to the 1960s where many Best in Show winners’ names have a distinctly familiar sound, at least to us old-timers. The first Westminster winner I saw was Ch. Courtenay Fleetfoot of Pennyworth, the English-bred Whippet who won in 1964 – but I saw him at home at Peggy Newcombe’s place a few years after his win. He was, I thought then, breathtaking, and the fact that he was actually closely related to my own dogs made me very proud. The first time I watched Westminster “live” was in 1973, and I’ll never forget the excitement of watching the white Standard Poodle, Ch. Acadia Command Performance, with his handler Frank Sabella. ‘Bart’ was like nothing I had ever seen before, and he was also so turned on that even Frank had a hard time keeping up. I believe they ran around the block – in downtown Manhattan! – several times in order to get Bart settled, and it must have worked, since they won. Frank retired from professional handling a few months later, but judged BIS at Westminster in 1990 and appears to be fully booked as an AKC and international judge for 2013 and ahead.
So what’s the best Westminster finale I can remember? It’s frankly a bit of a blur, with so many strong, competing visual images. I remember the wonderful Siberian Husky, Ch. Innisfree’s Sierra Cinnar, winning in 1980, in spite of missing the tip of his ear – something that oddly enough seemed to add to his appeal. Of course there was ‘Pepsi,’ the amazing Afghan Hound Ch. Kabik’s The Challenger, who in 1983 may have been the last genuinely amateur breeder/owner-handled dog to win BIS at Westminster. I remember ‘Hatter,’ the German Shepherd Dog Ch. Covy Tucker Hill’s Manhattan, who finally won in 1987 – his fourth try at Westminster. Hatter caused huge arguments between specialists, who didn’t feel he was even close to the best of the breed, and a much larger number of ringside fans, who felt he was simply the greatest DOG ever, bar none. I remember Olga Baker crying when her Pomeranian Ch. Great Elm’s Prince Charming II won under Michele Billings in 1988, and Andy Linton’s happiness when the wonderful Doberman bitch he showed, Ch. Royal Tudor’s Wild As The Wind, won the next year. Kellie FitzGerald won twice with English Springers, Michelle Ostermiller Scott took unprecedented back-to-back wins, and – speaking of Spaniels – not one but two Clussexx homebreds won BIS (one Clumber and one Sussex – hence the prefix). And Peter Green won again, and again, and again with Terriers.
The last couple of years were pretty special. Who could argue with the Scottish Deerhound GCh. Foxcliffe Hickory Wind, “the most perfect creature of heaven,” to quote Sir Walter Scott (as the 2011 BIS judge Paolo Dondina did)? And what can you add to all the plaudits that last year’s winner received, the Pekingese GCh. Palacegarden Malachy? A lot of people, even dog people, have trouble appreciating Pekingese as they deserve, but even if you think they are “just an odd fluff of hair,” you had to admire Malachy’s regal unconcern over all the fuss when he won. (And did you know that Malachy descends, amazingly, 17 generations down from the 1960 Westminster BIS winner Ch. ChikT’Sun of Caversham, the only dog to be Top Dog all breeds three years in the row in the U.S.?)
Still, if I have to pick a winner, it would have to be when the Kerry Blue Terrier Ch. Torum’s Scarf Michael made his final bid for Best in Show in 2003. He had won the Group the previous two years, he was arguably the most admired show dog in decades, and he was so charismatic that just watching him made my hair stand on end… When Irene Bivin pointed to ‘Mick,’ I thought the roof would fall in over Madison Square Garden. (And it didn’t hurt that the BIS photos with almost the whole McFadden family included was the best possible PR for dog shows. Talk about a family sport!)
So what’s your favorite winner? I would love to hear… I know I’ve left out too many greats.