There's Only One
"There’s only one” is the magic slogan describing the famous Westminster Kennel Club show. Westminster and New York City are forever etched together in the minds of dog-show aficionados as well as anyone else who ever heard of a dog show. Westminster has achieved the remarkable ability to balance trends with tradition over the years, adapting to changing times as well as the shrinking space available at the world’s most famous sports arena — Madison Square Garden.
Maxwell Riddle, the late award-winning journalist and all-breed judge, reported in a newspaper story of more than half a century ago how it all started. According to Riddle, sporting gentlemen hunters use to meet in the bar of the now-defunct Westminster Hotel in Manhattan to drink and swap lies about their shooting accomplishments over their gun dogs.
When these gentlemen of great wealth decided to form a club, they purchased a kennel and hired a trainer to perfect their dogs’ hunting accomplishments, naming their club after their favorite bar — Westminster. From England they imported a dog they renamed Sensation, a fabulous Pointer to improve their dogs’ field abilities as well as their conformation. Of course this famous animal is still with us almost 150 years later on the cover of the Westminster show catalog. Experts have commented on his physical qualities such as head, upper arm, veining and pointing stance that forever enhanced the breed’s gene pool in America.
Sensation, the long-ago Pointer on which the Westminster Kennel Club logo is based.
Although most of today’s dog-show world is accustomed to the two-day dog show format, the original Westminster shows were three and even four days in length with an actual five-day format one year. With the addition of performance events as well as the conformation competition, Westminster is somewhat returning to its roots. Of course the ever-changing loss of space has been a constant challenge for the Westminster officials.
Where there was once room at MSG for grooming, benching, exercise pens and even a professional booth manned by Laddie Carswell (Candy’s father), this has been reduced by the continuing needs of management for other uses such as executive suites. Exhibitors came up the ramp with their equipment and found their spot. Personally, in the old days I liked to set up near the ramp because it was cool. All of that ended with the need for increased security, especially after 9/11, among other things.
So Westminster changed with the times, seeking necessary floor space for breed judging at the Piers. Unfortunately, this year only half of that space is available — thus the three-day format for breed judging. Where once exhibitors walked across the street to the Garden for breed judging, now they climb aboard shuttle buses with their dogs and gear to go to the Piers. The ever-helpful Harry Miller and his crew as well as the buses are all provided via the courtesy of Westminster Kennel Club as the club continues to adjust to increasing problems with great fortitude.
New York City too changed with the times. Prior to 1978, dog owners were required to “curb” their dogs for droppings to be left in the gutters. The late beloved Bill Trainor for one always encouraged all exhibitors to pick up after their animals. Under the guidance of Mayor Ed Koch, times were changing. “If your dog poops, you scoop” became the new word on the street. New York is a city of dog lovers, and soon the carrying of baggies to dispose of messes became the routine order of the day. In the past the city dealt with the removal of horse leavings prior to the automobile. An interesting bit of trivia is that New York sanitation workers disposed of as many as 20,000 tons of dog leavings a year throughout the boroughs prior to the new rules. Public Health Law 1310 passed in 1978 and is backed up by fines.
The Westminster Kennel Club is a tale of survival — snowstorms, sanitation strikes, power outages, world wars and so on have challenged the club, which always rises to the occasion. In 1969, the blizzard that hit NYC in the middle of the weekend prior to Monday’s first judging was immense. I remember leaving the Pennsylvania Hotel to go under the street through Grand Central Station with Howdy Rowdy to the Garden. (Vin-Melca’s first group placer going 3rd in 1969.) People from far away who had come in early made the show, while many “locals” did not due to the inaccessibility of roads. JFK International Airport reported 20 inches of snow. Abandoned vehicles were found all over the roads in the greater New York area.
For days, NYC was paralyzed in a situation that became a political storm as well as Mother Nature’s storm. Mayor John Lindsay was criticized for not doing more to get the city back on its feet. Dog people were more forgiving of the mayor due to our mutual love for his respected sister-in-law Nancy Lindsay, a Bloodhound breeder of note and a respected judge. Of course public services, food supplies and other needs were in short supply. With their usual resilience, dog people survived.
The 1969 BIS-winning breeder/owner/handler Walter Goodman carried his Skye Terrier in his arms from the train to inside the Garden. My recollection is that when asked why he didn’t help his aging mother at that time, Walter responded that she wasn’t being shown!
When the founders of the WKC staged their first dog show in 1877, it was their goal to compare their dogs in another situation as well as in the field. Like their peers in England, the concept of evaluating breeding stock in a show environment was coming of age. Due to their early efforts, the Westminster Kennel Club show became synonymous with the purebred dog. Although started by those of great wealth, in time people from all walks of life came to NYC to enter their exhibits or to appreciate the exhibits of others as judges and spectators.
Not only have there been many famous celebrities attending the shows, there have also been royalty and European nobility’s dogs shown at Westminster in the past. Those from yesteryear included such names as the Queen of England (prior to Elizabeth II), the Czar of Russia and the Emperor of Germany. J.P. Morgan competed with his Collies for the first time in 1893. Today’s Westminster events continue to reflect that dogs are loved and indeed are representative of a very diversified population.
The continuing love of the gundog is evidenced by none other than the much-respected Thomas H. Bradley 3rd. Since his retirement from the WKC after years of loyal service, this iconic gentleman is enjoying a rededication to his beloved Pointers, which he bred under the famous Luftnase name with great success.
As far as other great Westminster traditions, the gathering at bars in the Big Apple still remains a favorite “sport” for dog people from everywhere as they bend elbows, rekindle old friendships and talk dogs until the wee hours. What about a rumored proposal to have the Garden concession itself offer a new cocktail named after Sensation? Sometimes the more things change, they more they stay the same. How good is that?