For years, a group of hunters would meet at the Westminster Hotel at Irving Place & 16th Street in New York, “to drink and lie about their shooting accomplishments”. At one such meeting the group decided to hold a dog show, “to compare dogs in a setting away from the field.
The Westminster Kennel Club was formed, for the purpose. The most famous dog show in the world was first held on May 8, 1877 called the “First Annual NY Bench Show of Dogs.” At that time the event was mostly sporting dogs, primarily 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. American journalist Nelly Bly entered her Maltese in 1894, four years after her record-breaking trip around the world, in 72 days.
The event was held at Gilmore’s Garden at the corner of Madison Avenue and 26th Street, a location which would come to 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).
According to Westminsterkennelclub.org,
“Westminster gets its name from a long gone hotel in Manhattan. There, sporting gentlemen used to meet in the bar to drink and lie about their shooting accomplishments. Eventually they formed a club and bought a training area and kennel. They kept their dogs there and hired a trainer.
“They couldn’t agree on the name for their new club. But finally someone suggested that they name it after their favorite bar. The idea was unanimously selected, we imagine, with the hoisting of a dozen drinking arms.”– Maxwell Riddle, from a newspaper story quoted in “The Dog Show, 125 Years of Westminster” by William Stifel
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, 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 went by the name of “Tug” that year.
The Westminster dog show was first televised in 1948, three years before the first national broadcast, of college football.
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”.
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.
This year, the Westminster dog show runs two days and nights in June. The 2021 event will be held at the Tarrytown estate known as Lyndhurst, in order to be held outdoors. No spectators are allowed for the 2021 event due to New York state Covid diktat.
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 was 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.
Feature image, top of page: German Shepherd dog “Rumor” wins best in show at the 141st Westminster dog show in 2017.