There are dog shows, and then there's Westminster. Established in 1877, the show is second only to the Kentucky Derby as America's longest running sporting event. The founders of Westminster thought that having a little event in New Year City might stir up interest in dogs.
Little event? Not anymore. There are several fundraising galas leading up to the show (Feb. 13-14 this year); a banquet for dog writers; international press cover the show, and celebrities from Martha Stewart to the legendary Lauren Bacall flock to Madison Square Garden. New York's skyline is even lit in Westminster purple. The Garden sells out (18,500 people), and the show is televised live, with millions watching at home.
"Not so bad for a little dog show," laughs perennial Westminster announcer and spokesman, David Frei. This will be his 23rd year behind the microphone. Frei has seen it all.
"In 2005, we saw Carlee the German Shorthaired Pointer with the stack heard around the world," he recalls. A "stack" refers to when a dog stands in such a way to best show off his or her confirmation. The stack might last for 10 seconds as the dog stands perfectly still for inspection by the judge.
"Well, Carlee went to the center of the ring and didn't move for at least a minute -- and the crowd went crazy," Frei recalls.
The loudest cheer at the Garden, according to Frei, came in 2008. "Uno (a Beagle) offered his own opinion to the judge, saying 'Woo! Woo!' And then when the Best in Show judge pointed to Uno as the winner, I have never heard the crowd reaction in Madison Square so loud. The building shook. It's like with one second left in the NBA finals and the Knicks score a basket."
Few in the huge crowd are shy about cheering for their favorite dogs. Fans do the same at home. "That's a part of the magic of Westminster," says Frei. "These days, dogs are a part of the family. Our dogs are (today) bred more for companionship, though they can still do the things they were bred to do. You can't go to the hoop with Kobe, or knock a drive down the middle of a fairway with Phil Mickelson, but you can envision yourself showing your dog. It's the alma mater factor. We think, I'm sitting here with my Brittany and I say, 'Grace, we could be there (on TV at Westminster) with a little road work, fewer cookies and maybe a bath once a week instead of every six months."
Frei adds, "And we all play dog show judge at home. It doesn't matter if you're a kid or a kid at heart. That's the great thing about the sport, that to a degree it's subjective."
While that may be true, judges are very familiar with the written confirmation standards for each breed they judge. Here's what happens at Westminster: Lots of judges decide on a winner for each of the 185 breeds. Each breed falls into one of seven groups: Herding, Hound, Non-sporting, Sporting, Terrier, Toy and Working. Seven judges decide on the top dog in each of those seven groups.
These seven dogs participate in the Best of Show competition. The BIS judge this year is Cindy Vogels. "She's a great dog lady," says Frei, "and a terrier person. It could mean a terrier will have the edge, but it might be that she will even be tougher on the terriers."
Throughout Westminster's history, terriers have had an edge. A dog from the Terrier Group has won Best in Show a whopping 45 times.
So, who will win it all this year? A terrier happens to have an inside shot -- a Wire Fox Terrier (named Eira) who won the National Dog Show. "She got to behave, though," says Frei. "Sometimes she looks for trouble." He adds, "There are a couple of Standard Poodles who will get a look. There's an Affenpinscher or a Pekingese who could take the Toy Group, and maybe the show. And A Whippet might sneak in there, too, or a Kuvasz (a large Hungarian herding breed).
Westminster airs Monday, Feb. 13, 8-9 p.m. ET live on the USA Network, and 9-11 p.m. ET live on CNBC; and Tuesday, Feb. 14, 8-11 p.m. ET live on the USA Network.