Seasoned stars, newcomers battle for Westminster dog show glory

John Biers
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A dog competes in the agility ring during the 2nd Annual Masters Agility Championship in New York at the 139th Annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show on February 14, 2015

A dog competes in the agility ring during the 2nd Annual Masters Agility Championship in New York at the 139th Annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show on February 14, 2015 (AFP Photo/Timothy A. Clary)

New York (AFP) - Canines of all shapes and sizes are descending on the Big Apple this weekend ahead of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

This year's version of the 139-year-old showcase features age-old sporting subplots, such as whether established stars like Matisse the Portuguese Water Dog and Nathan the Bloodhound can hold off the next wave.

Westminster 2015 will also see debut showings by new breeds from Hungary and Madagascar.

The two-day canine extravaganza, an annual bright spot with Fashion Week in the dead of winter, culminates Tuesday night with the selection of Best in Show in New York's Madison Square Garden. More than 2,700 dogs representing 192 breeds are competing.

The winner is traditionally feted the next day with a round of appearances on morning talk shows and a steak lunch at Sardi's restaurant.

In 2008, Uno the beagle made history as the first Westminster champ to be invited to the White House.

Leading contenders this year include Skye Terrier Cragsmoor Good Time Charlie and Bugaboo's Picture Perfect, an Old English Sheepdog. Nathan could become the first Bloodhound to take the coveted prize.

But some of the biggest intrigue surrounds Matisse, the nation's top-ranked dog and a two-time winner of the working group who has come up just shy of the top prize. Matisse is the same breed as White House residents Bo and Sunny Obama.

Highly ranked entrants often win, but upsets happen and a favorite can always have a bad day. New stars are born every year at Westminster, sometimes even taking the top prize.

"It sounds trite, but the only surprise at Westminster is if there are no surprises," Westminster communications director David Frei said.

- Long road to Westminster -

To win Best in Show, dogs must first be declared the "Best in Breed," which means besting out a troupe of similarly coiffed brethren.

Breed winners then progress to a prime-time televised battle with some 20-30 other dogs to determine the winner in one of seven groups, such as best terrier or best hound. Those dogs then compete in the Best in Show grand finale.

Organizers have opened up aspects of Westminster to unconventional entrants, such as mixed breeds that are eligible to compete in an agility contest introduced last year.

Westminster has also welcomed dozens of new breeds, further diversifying an already motley crew.

"We've just been in 'rare breed' limbo for a long, long time, so we're excited to be here," said Adrianne Dering, who appeared at a press availability Thursday with Luna, one of 14 Cotons de Tulears showing.

The breed, a cheeky little dog of angelic white, was known as the Royal Dog of Madagascar.

Breeders of the Wirehaired Vizsla, the other 2015 debutante, were equally buoyant after a lengthy road to Westminster in which breed champions needed to demonstrate sufficient population levels, among other requirements.

The dog is similar to the Vizsla, which has a flat coat and means "Pointer" in Hungary, from which both dogs originally hail.

While the newbies have buzz, they are not likely to make it to the business end this year.

At every step, dogs are petted and pinched to determine how they stack up against breed standards.

Do retrievers have sufficient leg strength to gather fowl? Do herding dogs have the right build for the sudden sprinting bursts needed to do the job?

In theory, that system should result in a diversity of champions. While that is to an extent the case, there is also a tradition of dominance at Westminster.

Terriers are the New York Yankees of the competition, winning 46 of the 107 Best in Show contests. Last year's champion, Sky, was a Wire Fox Terrier, which has 14 crowns at Westminster, making it the most dominant breed in the most dominant group.

Left out of the winner's circle have been the Labrador Retriever and the Golden Retriever, two of the three most popular breeds in the US.

Whereas retrievers were bred to take cues from their masters, terriers were let out and expected to find rats on their own, Frei said. That can give terriers a hint of hauteur that commands respect in the ring.

Terriers have the "kind of the temperament and showmanship that lends itself well to standing in line with six or seven other dogs," he said.

"It's their world, we're just living in it."