The Westminster Kennel Club dog show finals are shaping up to be a clash of canine titans. One is Bourbon the whippet, the prestigious show's runner-up last year and the winner of the huge American Kennel Club National Championship show in December. Another is Wasabi the Pekingese, the AKC show's 2019 winner and the grandson of Westminster's 2012 best in show.
Both trotted Saturday to slots Sunday's final ring, as did Mathew, a French bulldog that happens to live with Bourbon, and Connor, an old English sheepdog. Three more finalists will be selected Sunday night, when they all vie for best in show.
For Bourbon, the honour comes three months after having her first litter of puppies. “She’s come a long way — as a really unruly puppy, and then a really great show career, and then a mom” that doted on her five pups, said handler Cheslie Pickett Smithey of Sugar Valley, Georgia.
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She'll be facing off in the best in show ring against her husband, Justin Smithey, who handles Mathew the Frenchie but is one of Bourbon's breeders. As for which dog he'll be rooting for, “when you're a competitive person, you want to win with whatever you're showing,” he said.
And Mathew is in it to win it: “He thinks he's very special, and we think he is, too,” Smithey said.
As for Wasabi, “he' s just a fantastic dog,” says handler and breeder David Fitzpatrick of East Berlin, Pennsylvania. “He’s got the charisma and the movement and the showmanship that you want to have.”
Connor, a son of the 2013 Westminster runner-up, is “a cool dog, happy — he's a goofball,” says handler Colton Johnson of Colorado Springs, Colorado.
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The road to this year's Westminster show passed through a pandemic and a major change of date and venue, moving from New York City to a suburban estate and from February to June so it could be held outdoors.
For one of the nation's best known dog handlers, the road also proved dangerous. Bill McFadden, who has guided two Westminster winners, was rear-ended and injured while driving a van full of dogs cross-country to the show, his wife and fellow star handler, Taffe McFadden, said Saturday.
He was hospitalised for a time after the crash Tuesday in in Laramie, Wyoming, and is now recuperating at home in Acampo, California, she said before showing Bono the Havanese in the semifinal round Saturday night. She said her husband was checking in constantly on the goings-on at the first Westminster he has missed in years.
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The van was totalled, but the 10 dogs aboard weren’t injured, she said. Messages were left Saturday with local law enforcement agencies about the crash. Despite the shock and worry, “I'm really glad to be here. I wish my husband was with me,” Taffe McFadden said. “It's a highly coveted dog show to be at, and for them to work this hard to make it happen is pretty awesome.”
This year marks the first time the show, which dates to 1877, is outside Manhattan. Part of the competition is usually in exhibition buildings on Hudson River piers, and the rest in Madison Square Garden.
Many owners and handlers say they and their dogs relish the fresh air and breathing room of the sprawling Lyndhurst estate in Tarrytown, New York. Still, the outdoor setting came with some challenges, including not having a power and water supply for grooming.
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Some participants brought their own — the McFadden team, for instance, was set up in a parking lot with five generators, six 6-gallon jugs of water, a tent and small fenced pens for the dogs to bide time outdoors.
For others, it was more catch-as-catch-can. Janet Atkins and Charles Namey bathed and blow-dried their bearded collie, Moet, at a local pet store Friday, then brushed her and did other final touches Saturday on a table outside their minivan, with plastic sheeting for a canopy.
“You make do with what you can,” said Atkins, of Winter Park, Florida.
After flying in from Toronto on Friday evening, Irina Falk was up until 2 a.m. Saturday bathing and drying her Yorkshire terriers Tim Tim and Kenzo, then got up three hours later to get to the show, fix their topknots and try to keep their silky, flowing coats fresh on a humid morning on the Lyndhurst lawn.
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People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which regularly decries the show as a canine beauty contest, staged a demonstration Saturday on a Tarrytown corner. The group says it’s wrong to promote dog breeding when shelter pets need homes.
Being at Westminster is “a bucket-list item" for owner Kami Harris. She never pictured getting involved in dog shows until she got a French bulldog named Jack Jack as a pet, and his breeder suggested showing him. She says going to shows have helped her become more outgoing.
“Ever since covid hit, I realised how much I loved it and missed it,” says Harris, of Oregon City, Oregon. “The friendships that you make, and the people you meet — it's a community.”