The most famous dog show in the world was first held on May 8, 1877, called the “First Annual NY Bench Show of Dogs.” The event began as a show for hunting dogs, mostly Setters and Pointers with a few Terriers.
That first show featured two Staghounds belonging to the late General George Armstrong Custer. Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, entered two Deerhounds. Two years later, Russian Czar Alexander III entered a Siberian Wolfhound. German Emperor Wilhelm II entered his own Wolfhound, a year later.
The event was held at Gilmore’s Garden at the corner of Madison Avenue and 26th Street, a location which would one day be known as Madison Square Garden. In those days, another popular Gilmore Garden event was competitive boxing, a sport which was illegal in New York at that time. Events were billed as “exhibitions” or, better yet, “Illustrated Lectures.” (I love that one).
A group of hunters used to meet at the Westminster Hotel at Irving Place & 16th Street, “to drink and lie about their shooting accomplishments”. The Westminster Kennel Club was formed when the group first decided to hold a dog show.
According to Westminsterkennelclub.org, “Westminster pre-dates the invention of the light bulb, the automobile, and the zipper; the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Washington Monument; and manned air flight and the establishment of the World Series. Since Westminster held its first show 127 years ago, there have been 26 men elected president and 12 states have joined the union…The dog show has outlasted three previous versions of Madison Square Garden, and is currently being staged in MSG IV. It is one of only four events to be held in all four “Gardens.”.
Prizes for that original show included pearl handled revolvers. Amusing when you think of the 2nd amendment purgatory that is Warren Wilhelm’s (Bill DiBlasio’s) New York.
1,201 dogs arrived for that first show, in an event so popular that the originally planned three days morphed into four. The Westminster Kennel Club donated all proceeds from the fourth day to the ASPCA, for the creation of a home for stray and disabled dogs. The organization remains supportive of animal charities, to this day.
The Westminster dog show is the longest continuously held sporting event in the United States, with the sole exception of the Kentucky Derby, which began only a year earlier.
Not even two World Wars would stop the Westminster Dog Show, though a tugboat strike cut two days down to one in 1946. Even so, “Best in Show” was awarded fifteen minutes earlier than the year before. I wonder how many puppies were named “Tug” that year.
The Westminster dog show was first televised in 1948, three years before college football was first broadcast on national television.
When the American Kennel Club (AKC) was founded in 1884, Westminster was the first club to be admitted. Breed parent clubs such as the German Shepherd Dog Club of America developed breed standards, extensive written descriptions of what the perfect specimen looks like for any given breed. Some of the traits which distinguished the original working dogs of 1877 are still apparent, while other elements are seemingly arbitrary, such as tail carriage, eye shape and color.
Dogs are judged first against others of their own breed. The best of each goes forward into one of seven groups: Sporting, Hound, Working, Terrier, Toy, Non-Sporting, and Herding. In the final round, the winners from each group competes for “Best in Show”. In the end, there can be only one.
Mixed breeds have been permitted since 2014, to compete in an agility event.
A Smooth Fox Terrier named Ch.(Championship) Warren Remedy won the top award in 1907, 1908 and 1909, the only dog to ever win three Best in Shows at Westminster. Seven dogs have twice taken the top award. Five owners have won Best in Show with more than one dog. A Sussex Spaniel named Stump became the oldest winner in dog show history in 2009, at the age of 10. Judge Sari Tietjen said she had no idea the winning dog was a senior citizen. “He showed his heart out,” she said. “I didn’t know who he was or how old … I just couldn’t say no to him”.
Today, the Westminster dog show runs two days and nights in February. Entry is limited to 2,800 dogs and fills up on the first day of registration. Breed judging takes place during the day at Piers 92 and 94. Group and Best in Show competition takes place in the evening at Madison Square Garden. Since 1992, Westminster has invited the top five dogs from each breed to pre-enter, based on dog show performances of the preceding year.
Madison Square Garden generally sells out for the event, the WKC issuing up to 700 press credentials for media attending from no fewer than 20 countries. The Westminster website http://www.westminsterkennelclub.org receives about 20 million page views from 170 countries.
Since the late 1960s, winner of the Westminster Best in Show has celebrated at Sardi’s, a popular mid-town eatery in the theater district and birthplace of the Tony award.
And then the Nanny State descended, pronouncing that 2012 would be the last. There shalt be no dogs dining in New York restaurants. Not while Mayor Bloomberg is in charge.
Suddenly, Westminster found itself in good company. The Algonquin, the historic hotel at the corners of 59th Street West & 44th, had taken in a stray cat, sometime back in the 1930s. Ever since, one of a succession of felines have had the run of the place. The males have all been called “Hamlet”, the females, “Matilda”.
And then his Lordship Mayor Yourslurpeeistoobig’s Board of Health descended on the Algonquin, requiring that the cat be kept on a leash. There ensued a tempest in a cat box, until a compromise was reached, later that year. An electronic pet fence was installed confining the cat to non-food areas of the hotel, in return for which city bureaucrats returned to whatever it is they do.
Back to the dog show. Not wanting another such drama, Nanny Bloomberg pulled his health commissioner, Dr. Thomas Farley, aside. By the end of the week, the health department had found a loophole to defuse the standoff: Dr. Farley would issue a waiver. Since then, the winner at Westminster is free to enjoy the traditional celebratory luncheon of diced chicken and rice from a silver platter. Provided that it’s eaten in the back room.