Center of the Ring
On the eve of arguably the biggest annual event in American dogdom, here’s a cliché of comparable heft:
Westminster is more than just a dog show.
Granted, obvious. The second-longest-running sporting event in the country —predating the American Kennel Club itself — Westminster is indelibly imprinted on the national consciousness. But never mind the show’s resonance with the millions who tune in, waiting impatiently for the representative of their own canine contender snuggled on the sofa beside them. Instead, we’re talking about the persistent tug that Westminster exerts on so many in the dog fancy, in that small, still place where our visceral memories reside.
Underpinning all those fragments of Westminsters past— the subway-platform crush of the crowds, crates festooned with fabric and business-card holders, a toddler slumbering in an empty bench on a mattress of cast-off winter coats — are the people. The peals of laughter over dinners at tony steakhouses and sticky-floored Irish pubs, the hand squeezes of anticipation just before the definitive finger point — the hugs, the homecomings, the hopes all compressed into that jewel box of days.
It is inevitable, then, that no matter what the year or the venue, those memories come flooding back with each subsequent Westminster, puncturing the present day until the latter joins their ranks, creating the newest layer on the rich and complex geology of ourselves.
Best in Show judge Elizabeth “Beth” Sweigart of Bowmansville, Pennsylvania, will doubtless be juggling a marathon of memories when she enters the ring on Tuesday night to anoint this year’s Westminster winner. She has, after all, triumphed on its green carpet as both a judge (most recently judging the Sporting Group in 2018) and as an exhibitor (she has won groups five times at the Garden across three different groups). And given the circumstances, perhaps her memories will be a bit more poignant, even above and beyond what might be expected with an assignment of this magnitude.
Norfolks and Norwich in the barn on a rainy day in the '80s.
This is Sweigart’s fifth assignment at Westminster, but it is also her most emotional: A few short months ago, she was asked to replace the originally announced judge, her dear friend Geir Flyckt-Pedersen, who withdrew for health reasons.
“It’s very humbling and very joyous for any judge to say, ‘I’m going to judge Best in Show at Westminster’ — it’s certainly the greatest honor one can have in American dogdom,” she muses. “But the joyous part is a bit deflated when one of your best friends is not able to do it.”
Like so many who have been selected to judge before her — including her long-time partner, world-famous Welsh handler and judge Peter Green, who adjudicated Best at Westminster in 2019, the show’s penultimate year at the Garden — Sweigart is among one of the last generations of dog men and women who earned all their knowledge of the sport experientially rather than virtually.
Sweigart grew up on Long Island, just a dozen or so exits east of the USTA Billie Jean National Tennis Stadium, where this year’s show will take place. Her father bird-hunted on the Atlantic-lapped Great South Bay, and so Sporting dogs were a logical addition to the family.
“I grew up with Labs,” says Sweigart, who was so dog crazy as a youngster that she insisted on putting her uncle’s Beagles in her toy baby carriage rather than the perfectly coiffed dolls of her contemporaries. “My father would hunt with the Labs, which were the breed of choice of my family. If he got a bird, they would get it, but just on instinct — they weren’t trained.”
Her family knew nothing about dog breeding or dog shows, but when Sweigart graduated from college and got married, “I thought, I really want to raise Labs. They are like the perfect dog.”
Sweigart finishing her first Labrador champion, Springfield’s Ondine CD, in 1972 under judge William Kendrick.
The first person she met at a dog show in the late 1960s was the late handler and judge Bob Forsyth, who was showing a dog for Dorothy Howe of Rupert Kennels. Remembering him as “very gracious” in that formative encounter, Sweigart decided showing “could be a fun thing to do,” and, indeed, she went on to acquire Howe as an important mentor as well.
After breeding Labradors in Virginia under her Yarrow prefix, Sweigart divorced, downsized and moved back to Long Island. Soon after, she acquired a Norwich Terrier, Ch. Summercrest Lady Josephine, from a terminally ill friend who could no longer care for her. Eventually, the “drop-eared” Norwichs separated from their prick-eared littermates, and Sweigart acquired her Norfolk foundation bitch, Ch. Raggedge Are You Ready, bred by John Mandeville and gifted to her by Peter Green. “Muffin” went on to become the first group-winning Norfolk bitch.
“Co-Co” (Ch. Cracknor Cause Celebre) after being awarded Best in Show at the AKC Invitational with Sweigart and judge Frank Sabella.
As a professional handler, Sweigart showed the number-one dog all breeds, the Norfolk bitch Ch. Cracknor Cause Celebre, who also won Best in Show at Crufts in 2005. It was a fitting team, as Sweigart’s mentor in both Labs and Norfolk, Joan Read, might have noted. “Our breed is a ‘ladies breed,’” Read wrote about the Norfolk, “and needs sensitive hands in my opinion.” (Read also thought “we shouldn’t expect a lot of group placements with our little dogs,” an opinion “Co-Co” disproved quickly enough.)
Co-Co after being awarded Best at Montgomery in 2003. Pictured from left: Breeder and co-owner Elisabeth Mattell, co-owner Stephanie Ingram, judge Hans Lehtinen, co-owner Pam Beale and Sweigart holding Co-Co.
Sweigart’s third breed, the Affenpinscher, was acquired quite by accident. On a trip to Crufts to watch the Brussels Griffon judging, which happened to be delayed, Sweigart and Green noticed a woman with four Affenpinscher bitches on lead. Of the group, a sturdy little bitch named Doris caught the visitors’ eye.
“Everybody wants Doris,” the Affenpinscher lady sighed. “If you take her to America, I’ll be off the hook!”
Sweigart credits Ch. Gerbrae Maid in Splendor, as Doris was formally known, for being a “fabulous brood bitch” who in changed the direction of the breed on these shores. “She gave them a little more substance,” Sweigart explains. “She made them look more like monkeys — and not spider monkeys. She was a great show dog, and there weren’t many that sustained both that quality of type and temperament.”
Doris’ son, Ch. Yarrow’s Super Nova, won the Toy Group at the Garden in 2002, one of only two of his breed to reach those heights at the show.
Number-one Toy dog "Cosmo" (Ch. Yarrow’s Super Nova), bred and shown by Sweigart and Letisha Wubble, and owned by Dr. and Mrs. Truesdale, being awarded the group at Westminster under judge Keke Kahn.
Just as serendipity pointed Sweigart to Doris, so too has it had a hand in leading her to this year’s Westminster assignment. Always classically chic and well appointed in a sort of Burberry meets the Hamptons way, Sweigart waves off the obligatory questions about her Westminster outfit, other than to say that it won’t be “flamboyant.”
But no matter what Sweigart is wearing, most important on Tuesday night will be what’s going on inside: Not just the excitement of adjudicating seven fine dogs, selected from among the country’s most promising contenders, but also the steady bubbling up of memories, conversations and moments that make up our time in dogs — along with the kaleidoscope of people who accompanied us there.
“It’s an important time,” Sweigart reflects. “Certainly what every any handler, owner and breeder dreams of is winning Westminster. And what every judge aspires to is judging Best in Show there. I’m in awe, and I’m honored beyond measure.”