The Best Is Back!
As you may remember, Crufts was cancelled in 2021. It made a valiant comeback effort in 2022, but numbers were down and it was a bit lacking in its usually “buzz.” Not so in 2023, when numbers (of entries, of exhibitors, of spectators) were back, or nearly back, to pre-Covid levels.
The old buzz was back at last! So, unfortunately, was the Covid bug, but that wouldn’t be known until Facebook posts started to pop up after everyone had returned home. My dear friend Karl Donvil and I were having a last meal together before heading for home the following day. We had to cajole the hotel to keep its dining room open, since it was nearly 10 p.m. by the time Best in Show was over and photos were taken. As we were sitting there, a cheer rang out, and the waiter was seen to be carrying a very large number of champagne glasses to the “Spanish table” adjacent to us, where, among others, were the people who owned and handled the Best in Show Lagotto. More on him later.
The world’s biggest (and, some say, best) dog show began on March 9, with Gundogs and group on the first day. Each day is dedicated to two groups, with final judging in the main arena in the evening except for Gundogs. Entries are so large that judging on the day is limited to this one group. For those of you who have never been to Crufts, it’s held in a small part of a huge exhibition/conference center known as the National Exhibition Centre, or NEC. The part of the center devoted to the dog show encompasses about 250,000 square meters, divided into five halls. They form a horseshoe with the opening at the bottom, and breed rings are divided up accordingly.
The dogs and their people can be hard to find, as there are typically 200 or more trade stands spread throughout the venue. While the stands selling doggy products and apparel are very busy, this time you could also have your eyebrows threaded, buy rum, or enjoy a brief time-out in a massage chair (also available for purchase). It always amazes this dog-show addict that many – no, most – of the people milling about the halls have come for the shopping and never look at the dogs. The show is still benched, although that’s a practice that is on the wane in the U.K. You are expected to groom your dog in front of your bench, although a few diehards gather together and set up in the corners of the hall. The one notable exception is that there is always a large, dedicated area for the Poodle people to set up together. Poodles look rather different in the U.K., as the use of coat-altering products is forbidden. (I know, it is here, too, but no one in the U.S. even bothers to hide their hairspray can, spraying up their dogs at the in-gate, or publicly assisting with attractive markings on, for example, Shih Tzus and Bostons.)
After my friends Gavin and Sara Robertson went BIS with their lovely PBGV Jilly in 2019, they decided to start a charity in her name, raising an impressive sum of money to benefit both canine and human charities. After “Jilly’s Walk,” the Pawscars was born. A dress-up occasion, it is a wonderful opportunity to meet up with friends and participate in celebrating the best in our sport. Awards are given for a wide range of activities, such as best ring steward, best training class and best breed club. Most dog people seem to clean up nicely. Cocktail-party attire was the norm, including lots of tuxedos and sequins and cleavage.
I was surprised, over the course of the next few days, to discover that the “cocktail party attire” has migrated from the formal dinner to the show ring. Not just for the evening performances, but for the daytime classes as well. I must admit it was odd to see some exhibitors attired in jeans and sneakers, while other looked like they had walked from the Pawscars to the Beagle ring without changing clothes.
As my friend Geoff Corish and I were enjoying a glass of wine, we re-connected with friends whom I hadn’t seen for nearly 20 years. It was a warm reunion, filled with reminiscing about my first trip to Welsh Kennel Club at which they kindly offered to put me up in their friend’s tent, replete with snoring couple and their flatulent Bull Terrier. No matter how old you get, some memories last forever!
After telling everyone here in Connecticut that I was eagerly awaiting the British spring, I looked out the window on my first morning and saw nothing but white! Snow is rare in the English midlands, but there it was, all two inches of it. And it brought the city to its knees … school closings, workers calling out because they couldn’t travel to work, Crufts-bound exhibitors and spectators stuck at home or on the motorway. I called my usual taxi company and was told that there would be no taxis available for hours!
Suddenly faced with missing half of the first day of the show, I complained to the two nice women who were also pacing the lobby for the same reason. Turns out that one of them had travelled all the way from the Falkland Islands, a 20-hour trip! The hotel manager told us that, if we just walked a few hundred yards to the service road, we could catch a bus for two pounds, rather than having to cough up eight or 10 pounds for a taxi. It was easy, punctual and cheap. Feeling adventurous, I travelled to and from the NEC via bus for most of the four days. The Falklands woman is the only person on the island to own a Lundehund!
When I returned to the hotel on the evening of the 7th, I was met by my old friend Paul Scanlon and a bevy of his Irish friends. We shared an adult beverage (or two) and chatted about the show. There was a young woman at the end of the table who was very quiet. I asked if she was from Ireland as well, and how long she had known the rest of the group. She replied that she had just met them in the parking lot. And then her eyes filled with tears.
Come to find out, the girl had dreamed her entire life of going to Crufts, and finally had saved up the money to travel to Birmingham. She was a neophyte traveler. Imagine her horror when, on arriving at the hotel, she learned that her room had been reserved for the previous week! No rooms available, even at the more expensive hotels, which her budget did not allow. She was heartbroken, scared, short on funds, and was facing a night with no place to sleep. And it was near-freezing weather. One of the Irish crew went out for a vape (very prevalent in the U.K., as was smoking) and heard someone sobbing. After encouraging the young woman to tell her story, in an act of real charity, she invited the young woman to stay in her room for the duration! The crew said that the young “homeless” woman reported having the time of her life! Aoife, you are a very kind and special woman, and have my undying admiration!
Thursday was Gundog day, or Sporting dogs to us. In addition to the breed judging taking place in each of the five halls, there was a myriad of other activities to watch in the main ring, including the inevitable agility and flyball competitions, and the Gamekeepers finals (for those who are current or retired gamekeepers on private shoots and large estates). The Breeders Competition also took place on Thursday night. I’m glad it’s back; I love seeing the teams of handlers, dressed in matching outfits, handling four dogs that were all bred by the same breeder/exhibitor. I believe that Averill Cawthera-Purdy won again with her very successful Pomeranians.
The evening culminated with the judging of the Gundog Group, where judge Mr. G. Haran gave top prize to the Lagotto Romagnolo, sent forward by well-known breeder/exhibitor and judge Patsy Hollings. Her Gunalt Weimeraners are among the U.K’s most successful show dogs. By the next day or so, the Lagotto national club had very wisely updated their website to include an “Are you thinking of buying a Lagotto puppy?” post, anticipating – rightly – that the breed would suddenly be in high demand.
The Lagotto, which was only recognized by the AKC in 2015, was originally bred to be a waterfowl retriever, and is the most highly regarded truffle dog in the world. They have existed since the Renaissance but are not well known. Until now. They are described in their native Italy as “carino,” which means cute, a characteristic that will most likely result in a storm of would-be puppy buyers. Orca’s handler, Javier Mendikote, drove 25 hours to attend! It was worth it, as we would see on Sunday night. Orca is formally known as Am GCh. Kan Trace Very Cheeky Chic, who is residing in Spain. Orca is also an American grand champion and had a very successful career in the U.S.
In the Reserve Best in Group spot was the Lab ShCh Lapema Masquerade at Sandylands. If you follow Labs, you will recognize the Sandylands affix as one of the most successful kennels in the U.K. Started by Gwen Broadly in 1929, it has produced some of the world’s best Labs and is still producing them to this day. Gundogs in the U.K. need to have both conformation and field titles in order to be known as “full champions,” hence the show champion title on the Group 2 dog.
Day two, Friday, was devoted to the Working and Pastoral (Herding) breeds. An unforgettable day for me, as my bestie Geoff Corish had been given the honor of judging the junior-handling finals. Now known as the Joe Cartledge Memorial Junior Handling Competition, in honor of one of Britain’s most famous and respected dog men, it has been long tended and nurtured by his wife, Liz Cartledge, who has continued her interest and involvement since her husband’s passing. Pre-judging took place in the morning, with Geoff instructed to create a potential “shortlist” in his head to streamline the final competition in the evening. Geoff and partner Michael Coad are the most successful handlers in the U.K. It’s always surprised me that it took the Kennel Club years to offer him this assignment for which he was so well suited.
The evening’s final gave each of the juniors the opportunity to show off their handling skills with their chosen breed. The wrinkle is that the dogs were all on loan from exhibitors, who made them available just that morning. Juniors qualify from throughout the world and the talent is impressive. The standout in the class – at least to me and my seatmates – was a young man named Inigo Gaya with a Jack Russell Terrier. He never stopped working to get the best out of his unfamiliar dog. He was a worthy winner.
On Friday, Geoff came to the press room to remind me that we were having lunch in the Kennel Club judges’ dining hall. Prince Michael of Kent, first cousin to the late Queen, has for many years been the royal patron of the show, and on this day he appeared at the dining room, complete with entourage, and had lunch at the adjacent table. I had a truly interesting chat with his protection officer, who serves in the employ of “the cousins,” as they are known. There are about half a dozen of them and their families who attend public events throughout the U.K. and beyond as part of their royal service. Everyone was standing when he entered the room. Had they been sitting, protocol mandates that everyone stand. As he rose to leave (again, due to protocol, no one leaves before the prince), we all rose. Had I met him, since he is styled as His Royal Highness (or HRH), it would have been appropriate to curtsey. Should the opportunity have presented itself, I took comfort from the fact that, unlike Meghan Markle, I already knew how.
The Vulnerable British Breeds competition took place later that evening as well, and included those breeds whose registrations are 300 or fewer during the past year. This group includes two of my breeds, the Sealyham and the Dandie, which is no surprise on this side of the pond, but also includes a few breeds that we would not consider “endangered,” including Kerries and Mastiffs. It was judged by Zena Thorn-Andrews, legendary breeder of Irish Wolfhounds and mini wire Dachshunds. It was a Cardigan who took the top prize, the import PI-ET-RA of Trefilio Born to be Avalanche.
Friday was chock full of competitions and demos and culminated in the two groups, Working and Pastoral (Herding). Both groups were judged by legendary fanciers, with Ireland’s Ann Ingram passing on Working, and Sweden’s Renee Sporre-Willes doing Pastoral. Ann found her top Working dog in the Dobermann (spelled correctly!) Ch. Manzart Wise Guy, aka “Archie.” With natural ears and tails, they don’t much resemble the ones you see here. They also have more bone and substance than some of ours do.
When the four Group placers are announced, and make their way to the placards, it is usual for one of the TV cameramen to walk along the line-up and, holding his large camera at dog level, take film of the winning dogs from their level. I no sooner said, “I hope this guy understands how some of these breeds might respond to this scary sight,” when the Dobe took offense and began to bark as a dog would when faced by a threat to himself or his owner. Of course, it was filmed, an unfortunate event in the current “dangerous dogs” climate. The dog never appeared to be about to lunge, but his handler was unable to calm him until the clueless cameraman moved on.
I remember thinking that this might be just the beginning of the bad publicity, as the Tibetan Mastiff was next in line. Fortunately, there were no fireworks and I was later told that the scene had been cut out of the TV footage. The Reserve Best in Group Tibetan Mastiff was the gorgeous French Ch. Rongshai Du Domaine de Toundra.
Mrs. Renee Sporre-Willes, a very popular judge who hails from Sweden, sent forward a lovely Old English to the number-one spot. I wondered, as did my seating companions, whether we still are meant to call them bobtails, as tail docking has been banned for a number of years in the U.K. (Ear cropping has been banned for well over a century.) Since the tail is typically carried low, like a collie, and the profuse coat somewhat hides it, the presence of the tail is not as jarring as it is in some other breeds. She was Ch. Airzeppelin Delia, aka “Blondie.” Mrs. Sporre-Willes placed Hungarian Border Collie Etched In Sand By The Lake to the number-two spot.
Saturday was devoted to Terriers and Hound breeds. Again, there were more agility and flyball finals, as well as group judging. The Terrier Group was judged by my old friend David Guy, who is famous for his Donzeata Griffons and his and partner’s Stuane Scottish Terriers. Winning dog was the lovely Wire Fox Terrier Ch. Blanca Vd Shoenen Bergen, owned by the very successful F.W. Schoneberg, no stranger to winning over some of the world’s best dogs. The dog was trimmed to perfection, and just never stopped showing. He made the trip from Germany, and his handler made the very impressive trip from Croatia. Reserve Best in Group went to the Border Terrier, Ch. Otterbobs Tolson.
The Hound Group, under Mr. M. Caple, wrapped up the evening, providing a very popular winner in the form of Chris Amoo’s Irish Wolfhound Ch. Sade Paris. In addition to being a very clever breeder and handler, Mr. Amoo is also known as lead singer of the great R&B and blues band The Real Thing. Second in Group went to the lovely Grand Basset Ch. Forget-Me-Not V Tum-Tums Vriendjes.
The Toy and Utility (Non-Sporting) groups occupied the final evening. After more agility and demos, the final judging of Crufts 2023 began in the big ring. It has become a custom for the evening to include a vocal performance from an opera singer, and this time it was Augusta Hebbert, a lyric soprano. Also on the schedule was the always-moving Kennel Club Hero Dog Final, and the Young Kennel Club finals, judged, as I recall, by the aforementioned Gavin Robertson. This is a competition for young people but differs from the Junior Handling competition in that it is the young person’s dog being judged, not the handling skills of the junior.
The Utility Group was judged by well-known breeder/exhibitor Mark Cocozza, who, unsurprisingly, put up the black Standard Poodle Ch. Huffish Rewrite the Stars with Atastar, no stranger to the winners circle, with Reserve Best in Group to the Japanese Akita Inu Sh Ch. Dai Kichi Go Sun’you Kensha. Several years ago, the two distinct types, one described as American and the other as Japanese, were split. The Akita is very like ours, whereas the Japanese Akita Inu, considered the more original version, resembles a giant version of – you guessed it – the Shiba Inu.
Toys were up next, judged by Dr. A. Segersven from Finland, who found his winner in the Cavalier Ch. Ellenmich American Express, with second to the Yorkie Ch./Multi Ch. Royal Precious Jp/s F4 Conan. Thankfully, they are no longer shown standing on red, bedazzled boxes. Also thankfully disappearing is the awkward habit of throwing a bathmat or small rug under the hind ends of over-angulated breeds when they come back to the judge in the breed ring. Use Sticky Paw, folks. The bathmat thing just reinforces the perception that your dog isn’t able to stand naturally.
More opera performance, an intermission and the night’s big event commenced. It was judged by Mr. Stuart Mallard, famous worldwide for his Simply Fine Art business. He is an extremely talented artist, whose breeds have included Old English Sheepdogs and Bichons. He judges 32 breeds and two groups. He has judged since 1972 and was once in a band called the Pentagrams, so he and Chris Amoo have something to chat about!
While it’s a cliché, it would have been difficult to go wrong with such lovely dogs in the ring. The crowd made their favorite known, and it was clearly Mr. Amoo’s beautiful Wolfhound. Mr. Mallard stood in center ring, looked up and down his line-up one more time, and walked toward the front of the line, extending the customary handshake to an amazed and delighted Javier and his beautiful Lagotto. I’m sure that, somewhere in his mind, was the thought that the 25-hour drive didn’t seem so long anymore! This lovely little dog had triumphed over about 19,000 other dogs to win the world’s biggest dog show, putting the breed in the record books forever. “Orca” is owned by Sabina Zdunic Sinkovic and Ante Lucin. A well-deserved Reserve went to the Old English.
Whether it is on your wishlist, or your 40th time around (congrats, Enrique Mate Duran), Crufts is still magic. Make the trip next March and enjoy some of the best dogs in the world, walk far more than your Fitbit demands, meet great people, buy stuff you probably don’t need, and come home, as do I, with some unforgettable memories. To paraphrase Elton, “The best is back”!