By now you will know what happened at this year’s Westminster. The new location has been roundly praised, especially the amazing way the club succeeded in transforming two rather industrial-looking piers jutting out into the Hudson River into a wonderland for Westminster junkies. It’s amazing what a few thousand feet – or miles? – of purple and green carpeting can do, especially when accompanied by fresh white walls with photos of past winners and the usual handsome ring material: purple velvet ring ropes and brass stanchions.

Sure, it’s a long walk from the end of one pier to the other (almost like at Crufts, someone said), but that won’t be a problem next year when the escalators are working again. (Apparently they are still awaiting repair since Hurricane Sandy.) Yes, more places to sit and rest one’s weary legs would be nice, and I’m still not sure what happened to the Awards of Merit, which have been such a popular attraction in past years – but the main point was that the move out of the crammed Midtown location went as smoothly as it did. For a first-time trial, it was truly impressive.

You have probably also watched the exciting Best in Show  competition at Madison Square Garden, live or on TV. What more can you say about little Banana Joe, the Affenpinscher from Holland who captured first Europe and then America? (His first really big win three years ago was BIS at the Bundessieger show in Germany over 7,000 dogs.) Small black dogs seldom look really impressive from ringside, but I walked round backstage to where the Group winners were getting ready for the big finale, and a few seconds of looking into Joe’s face was all it took for me to melt completely. His tail never stopped wagging. “Does he EVER tire?” I asked Ernesto Lara, and he said no – but he also added during the BIS interview afterwards that Joe knows when it’s showtime and turns everything up a few notches then.

And what about the Old English Sheepdog, ‘Swagger,’ alias Bugaboo’s Picture Perfect, only 20 months old and winner of the first Reserve BIS award to be handed out at Westminster since 1925? Swagger was also the first non-champion class dog to win the Group here in more than half a century. (Most people have forgotten this, but class dogs could in fact compete at the Garden until 1991, but none as far as I can find has won a Group since 1961.) I don’t know how long it’s been since a “new” dog gave me goose bumps, but this was definitely the case here. I was told Swagger had only been to three shows in his life (RWD at the National, an all-breed BIS, and now this); someone else said four shows, but no matter, defeating so many of the country’s established stars at such a young age was amazing. I’m sure many of us can’t wait to see what Swagger and Colton Johnson can do for an encore.

The English Setter Ch. Rock Fall’s Colonel won 100 Best in Shows in the 1950s, but a victory at the Garden was not among them. Bo Bengtson collection.

Top Dogs That Don’t Win

That brings me to the subject of this article: top dogs that don’t win at Westminster… or at least have to try and try again before they do. To many regular exhibitors, it may seem that the top-ranked dogs just never lose, but that isn’t true, and perhaps it can serve as a reality check, even encouragement for the rest of us, that these seemingly invincible superstars on occasion in fact have days when things don’t go their way. It is a fact that several of the top dogs of all time never won Best in Show at Westminster. The Smooth Fox Terrier Ch. Nornay Saddler from the 1930s, the English Setter Ch. Rock Falls Colonel (winner of 100 BIS in the 1950s), the Kerry Blue Terrier Ch. Melbee’s Chances Are from the 1960s, the Greyhound Ch. Aroi Talk of the Blues in the 1970s, the Wire Fox Terrier Ch. Galsul Excellence (1980s) and the all-time top BIS-winning German Shepherd Ch. Altana’s Mystique (1990s) are just a few illustrious Westminster non-winners through the decades.

Of course, not winning Best at Westminster is hardly the same as losing. It’s probably more like getting an Academy Award nomination and then seeing the Oscar go to someone else… You clench your teeth, smile and remember that even being considered in such august company is an honor. Being defeated in the Group really can’t be that terrible, either – or can it? I have seen handlers make sad faces after “only” getting a Group placement with a big-time favorite, but that’s still more than most of us dare dream of. Losing in the breed hurts, though, no question about it, at least if you have a top contender, but these things do happen.

The most recent occasion of course occurred only last year, when the previous year’s Number 1 dog of all breeds in the U.S., the black Cocker Spaniel GCh. Casablanca’s Thrilling Seduction, went down to a dog of the same variety that was unknown to almost all the spectators. I can’t remember where I was at the time, but you could actually feel in the air that something was about to happen… and somehow, intuitively, I elbowed my way to the Cocker ring just in time to see the two dogs being pulled out together. The tension at ringside was so thick you could cut it with a knife, but judge Don Sturz remained cool, and after taking them around a last time together, he pointed to the “new” dog. Of course, we later learned that this dog, GCh. Mario N Beechwood’s Midnight Express, was already a top winner in Canada, and he in fact went on to become Number 1 of all breeds north of the border last year. I’m not sure that lessened the shock at the time, though.

The record-setting Afghan Hound Ch. Tryst of Grandeur won the Hound Group at Westminster in 1996, but Best in Show eluded her. Bo Bengtson collection.

Another breed defeat I remember quite well took place in the 1990s. The glamorous Afghan Hound Ch. Tryst of Grandeur, whose 161 Best in Shows remain a record for any Hound, had won the breed for three years in a row, placing in the Group every time and winning it in 1996. Then her luck ran out, and she was defeated for the next couple of years. In both 1999 and 2000, BOB was another bitch, Ch. Xandali Isabeau of Boanne, also black, glamorous and attractive, and a constant winner at specialties, but not nearly as successful in all-breed competition as ‘Tryst.’ (If I remember correctly she won just one single all-breed BIS.) ‘Isabeau’ won again in 2001, and Tryst was entered, but I can’t remember if she was shown. Although at that point Tryst was 10 years old, she was hardly past her shelf life – she had been top Hound for four years between 1994 and 1999 in addition to being Number One of all breeds in 1995.

The much admired English-bred Norwich Terrier Ch. Thrumpton’s Lord Brady was Number 1 dog all breeds in 1981, despite an upset in the breed ring at Westminster. Bo Bengtson collection.

Going further back, who can forget the uproar when the Number 1 dog of all breeds in 1981, the much admired English-bred Norwich Terrier Ch. Thrumpton’s Lord Brady, was defeated for Best of Breed by a little bitch whose name I can’t remember, although I’m pretty sure she didn’t have much of a show record beyond that one win. Both her owner and the judge, strong-willed ladies I knew quite well from another breed, are long gone, so perhaps it’s best to leave it at that.

There have been other upsets like those, examples of horrible judging or fearless integrity depending on whom you talk to. It’s not a question of gloating over how the mighty may fall, so much as realizing that even the greatest winners may lose on a bad day… and that the one who defeats them just might be your dog!

Boxer Ch. Barrage of Quality Hill, won three years in a row, 1954-1956, but never won Best in Show. Bo Bengtson collection.

Three-Time Winners

OK, let’s focus on something more positive. By my count at least 65 dogs have won the Group twice at the Garden, but only a handful have done so three times, and none more than that. (Will that ever happen? Is it even possible for a dog to win the group four times at the country’s most prestigious dog show? It isn’t likely, but never say never.) The first three-time winner I found was the Boxer Ch. Warlord of Mazelaine, who first took the Group from the classes in 1944, then again in 1946 and 1947, when he also won BIS. (The same kennel produced another BIS in 1949, Ch. Mazelaine’s Zazarac Brandy, who won even more BIS than Warlord.) Another Boxer, Ch. Barrage of Quality Hill, won three years in a row, 1954-1956, but never won BIS. (His sire Ch. Bang Away of Sirrah Crest won BIS in 1951, however, not leaving much for other breeds than Boxers for over a decade.)

Around the same time, the legendary Greyhound Ch. Magic of Mardormere, who was shown by a young Robert Forsyth at some of her later shows, won the Hound Group for three years in 1947-1949, the only Hound ever to do so.

Sporting dogs saw the immortal black Cocker Spaniel Ch. My Own Brucie win in 1939-1941, with BIS the last year. In 1942 he could not compete, as his owner and breeder Herman Mellenthin was judging BIS that year. I don’t think anyone else has been involved in the BIS finale for four years running! Much more recently, another Sporting dog, the Gordon Setter Ch. Bit O Gold Titan Treasure, won three times, in 1997-1999.

Standard Poodles have dominated the Non-Sporting Group since the 1940s. The great Swiss import (via England), Ch. Nunsoe Duc de la Terrace of Blakeen, won the Group from the classes in 1934, BIS in 1935 and the group again in 1936. The Blakeen Poodles, owned by white-gloved Hayes Blake Hoyt, were responsible for a further five Westminster Group winners, setting a record that it took Pat Trotter and the Vin-Melca Elkhounds of more recent vintage to improve upon. Some of the Blakeens were Miniatures, but it is Standards that have won the most, and nearly all of them come down from “the Duke.” His latter-day descendant, Ch. Lake Cove That’s My Boy, took three Groups in 1998-2000, and with his son Ch. Ale Kai Mikimoto On Fifth and that dog’s daughter Ch. Brighton Minimoto, the family is responsible for seven Non-Sporting Groups at Westminster since 2003.

Toys are represented by the legendary Pekingese Ch. Chik T’Sun of Caversham, three-time Group winner in 1957, 1959 and 1960, with BIS on the last occasion. The top Herding representative is of course the German Shepherd Dog Ch. Covy-Tucker Hill’s Manhattan, whose Westminster record is a study in perseverance. In 1983, when he was already nearly 4 years old, he was defeated in the breed; the next year he won the Group; in 1985, when he was in the middle of a two-year run as Top Dog All Breeds, he was “only” Group Second; in 1986 he won the Group for the second time, but missed out on Best in Show, and in 1987, when he was close to 8 years old, he finally won BIS!

Even such a legendary show dog as the Kerry Blue Terrier Ch. Torum’s Scarf Michael was not completely invincible. He came to the U.S. from England as a Crufts BIS winner, won the group at Westminster in both 2002 and 2003, but did not win BIS there until in 2004.

All these dogs of course belong to an elite group of legendary winners. Most of us would be happy to just get a ribbon – any ribbon – at Westminster!