Westminster Dog Show, An American Tradition. David Frei's Hunches.
Written by Steve Dale   

Puli, CH. Cordmaker Field of Dreams is like WhoopiThere are dog shows, and then there’s Westminster. Established in 1877, it is only second to the Kentucky Derby as America’s most established sporting event. Back then, the dog show founders thought that having a little event in New Year City might stir up interest in dogs.

If only those founders could know what they built. David Frei has been the broadcast voice of the dog show for 21 years,” By the time we get to best in show the Garden is vibrating, its louder than it is for any Knick’s game.”

The fans aren’t only from New York, they’re from around the world. Westminster has become a kind of Academy Awards for dogs. As the contestants approach Madison Square Garden, instead of walking down a red carpet, they stop at the red fire hydrant on 32nd Street.

Regal Doberman, Allure Blazing Star Indeed there are all sorts of parties the weekend preceding Westminster, some for non-profits benefiting animals, even an awards banquet for members of the Dog Writer’s Association of America.

While celebrity dog lovers pop into the Garden, such as Martha Stewart and Lauren Bacall, there’s no doubt the show dogs are the true stars. In fact, for the past decade or so – winners of Westminster have become stars in their own right. They make a round of frenzied media appearances on the days and weeks following being named Best in Show, appearing everywhere from “The Today Show” to “The Ellen Degeneres Show.” Newspaper around the globe rally to interview the winning dog’s handler and owner.

Two recent crowd favorites were the 2008 and 2009 Best in Show winners. In 2008, a Beagle named Uno cheered his own victory, as Beagles are likely to do, and the national TV audience loved it. Frei and Uno the Beagle appeared every where from Miller Park to help throw out (or retrieve) the first pitch at a Brewers major league baseball game to charity events. Last year’s Best in Show winner was Stump, a Sussex Spaniel. At 10, Stump was the oldest dog to win the Big Show, a clear underdog, Among Stump’s biggest fans, sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer who said, “When I found out Stump’s age I was so happy. In dog years he’s younger than me (she was 80 at the time).”

Watching long-shot, Golden Retriever CH. Toasty's Treasure Island Of course, any dog of any of the 173 breeds and varieties participating can win. But the clear favorite this year, according to Frei, is a Scottish Terrier named Sadie. She’s currently America’s top dog, with wins at the National Dog Show, the AKC/Eukenuba Dog Show and just about every other major show in 2009. “She has 100 Best in Show’s in her career,” says Frei. “And now she comes to Westminster, a show dominated by Terriers.”

Historically, 44 terriers have won Westerminer, including two in the past decade: Mick, a Kerry Blue Terrier in 2003 and in 2006, Rufus a Colored Bull Terrier won.

“Still Michael Jordan didn’t score 48 points every time out,” says Frei. Other favorites for Best in Show include a Doberman Pinscher named CJ, the number two Working Group dog in the country. Also, there’s a Puli named Conrad who could win the Herding Group and take Best in Show. Puli’s coats are carefully arranged cords. Frei adds, “(actor/author) John O’Hurley had the best line on live TV about the Puli, he said, ‘Whoopi, we found your hair.”

Number one dog in the country, CH. Roundtown Mercedes Of Maryscot Frei says this year’s “dark horse dog” is a Golden Retriever named Toasty. Amazingly, a Golden Retriever, or for that matter a Labrador Retriever, has never won Westminster.  Lab’s have been the most popular dog breed in America since 1991, and Golden’s among the top-five most popular breeds for even longer.

“I can’t say why they’ve never won,” says Frei. “If Toasty makes into the Best in Show ring, the crowd will definitely be behind him.” Of course, judges are there to judge the dogs at that moment based on the written standard – and the crowd noise isn’t supposed to matter. Still, Frei admits, “Of course, the judges can hear the cheering, and they’re after all only human. What’s great about Westminster is that we’re all judges watching from the comfort of our sofa’s at home.”

Westmisnter will be broadcast 8 p.m. ET on USA, and 9 to 11 p.m. on CNBC on February 15; and 8 to 11 p.m. ET on USA on February 16. Learn more, and see behind the scenes action at www.westminsterkennelclub.org.

©Steve Dale, Tribune Media Services