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Started in 1877, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show is the second-longest continuously held sporting event in the country (edged out by the Kentucky Derby, which began two years earlier). It’s considered the most prestigious of its kind in the world, drawing purebred pooches from across the globe. This year, there are 2,721 entrants; 287 of them are from New York State.
RECOMMENDED: Read our Westminster Dog Show 2016 guide
So how does it work? There are 187 competing breeds and varieties (for example, Smooth, Wirehaired or Longhaired Dachshunds), including two that are newly eligible: the Treeing Walker Coonhound and the Russell Terrier. Each pup is judged according to the ideal physical standards for its breed. The top candidate for each variety and breed is then selected to compete against the other dogs in its group: Sporting, Nonsporting, Hound, Working, Herding, Terrier and Toy. The winner of each group goes to the final round: Best in Show.
The eventual victor receives a purple-and-gold rosette, a trophy and bragging rights—people who show dogs do it for the love, not the money. Much like in the Kentucky Derby, Best in Show winners usually retire right away, having reached the peak of their game. Last year’s champion is a five-year-old Pekingese named Malachy. Over his two-year career, this Pennsylvanian pooch competed in approximately 225 shows, winning 115 of them. We spoke to his owner, David Fitzpatrick, a breeder and professional handler, about what goes down behind the scenes at America’s Dog Show.
How do you prepare for the show?
“The day before, Malachy gets his nails done, his teeth brushed and has a full bath. He’s shampooed and brushed as he’s dried to get the hair to lie in the right position. I give him a nice breakfast—he eats Purina Pro Plan and boiled chicken—exercise him several times during the day, and at about 8pm let him go to bed so he keeps his energy up for the next day.
The day of the show, we usually get up around 5am, put everything on a little trolley and pull it over to Madison Square Garden to get ready. Since the bulk of the grooming is already done, the day of the show you’re mostly just fluffing up the hair. A Pekingese has to have a very large mane, like a lion, so we’re brushing it up, spraying conditioner and maybe putting a little baby powder in to keep it fluffy. That can take a couple of hours.”
What happens backstage?
“It’s a constant parade of press, photographers, spectators and visitors coming by to give you their good wishes. It’s not a cutthroat sport, so we’re all very friendly to each other; everybody loves to see a beautiful animal.”
What are the judges looking for?
“Pekingese have to have short legs, a pear-shaped body that’s wider in front and narrow behind, a short neck, a flat face and a rectangular head. Malachy is a bit of an extrovert; most judges gravitate toward a dog that has a little magnetism and personality.”
What happens after the show?
“[The winner] has a few commitments to attend to. Directly afterward, photos are taken, then you go to a press conference and the after-party. Malachy was a good sport about it all; he had his photo taken with everyone like a trouper, even through it was past his bedtime and he was getting quite tired. We went to bed at 3:45am for a 4:45am wake-up call and 5:45am pickup to go on the media tour. We did the Today show, The View, Martha Stewart, Morning Joe, then we went to Donald Trump’s office for a reception—it just went on all day. In the afternoon, we went to Sardi’s, where the Best in Show winner is served a meal on a silver platter, and celebrities come in and say hi. That’s a Westminster tradition. We were finished with everything around 7pm. The following day, Malachy rang the bell at the New York Stock Exchange. It took a couple of weeks for things to die down.
He actually has a few more [appearances before this year’s show]. He’s going to be visiting Bloomingdale’s and the Angel on a Leash benefit, and Monday morning he’s going to light the Empire State Building in the traditional purple-and-gold Westminster colors.”
What does Malachy do now?
“His life has really not changed that much, except for the demand for him at special events, which is a kind of work, but still great fun. Malachy has always been treated like a little king at home, so he’s just enjoying the same good treatment he has always enjoyed.”
The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show takes place Mon 11 and Tue 12. Breed and variety judging: Piers 92/94, W 55th St at Twelfth Ave; 8am–6pm; $25. Group judging and Best in Show: Madison Square Garden, 4 Pennwsylvania Plaza (Seventh Ave) between 31st and 33rd Sts; Mon 11 8–11pm, Tue 12 7:30–11pm; $40. westminsterkennelclub.org.