It started April 18, 2011, when I got home from work. My partner Dan had already picked up the mail, never mentioning the gold envelope with the Westminster Kennel Club return address. Holding my breath, I reached inside for the letter. It read, “It is my pleasure to extend to you, on behalf of the Dog Show Committee, an invitation to judge at our 137th Annual Dog Show to be held February 11th and 12th, 2013, at Madison Square Garden.” (Yes, I kept the letter.) My assignment was six Terrier breeds and my own breed, Afghan Hounds.
First came the shock and the thrill, and then the realization that I couldn’t tell anyone … for a long time. In my letter there were my all-important instructions to “keep this invitation completely confidential until the judging panel is released to the press in the spring of 2012.” Am I that good at keeping secrets? Thankfully, yes.
After that sinks in, then it’s the OMG factor. As a kid in high school, I would run to the school library, where I’d search out next-day copies of the New York Times, which contained articles on Westminster written by Walter Fletcher. I read every word of those articles. Twice I knew the Group winners: the Afghan Hound Ch. Sahadi Shikari and the Wire Fox Terrier Ch. Zeloy Mooremaide’s Majic, which would eventually go Best in Show. Those were my two favorite breeds. And now I would be judging them at the Garden, only the Best of Breed judging was eventually announced to be at the Piers. Small blip, but it was still Westminster.
I’m not going to kid anyone and pretend judges don’t fast forward to think of the possible dogs they may judge. But amazingly, the closer to the show I got, the less it mattered. It would happen on the spot. Some of these breeds I had devoted almost my entire life to. I had the knowledge and the security, so what the heck, enjoy.
And then there were the clothes. What people don’t tell you is that Westminster judging is a challenge because of the packing! There were two days of daytime judging, evening finals that require “black tie” wardrobe, the judges’ dinner at The New York Yacht Club (also “black tie”), the cocktail reception, brunch with friends visiting the city and dinners out with your New York buddies. Dan and I would set clothes out, look at the mess and start laughing. And then we edited. We never packed as efficiently as we did for this trip, as it turned out. Only one shirt did I not wear. I wanted to look professional and formal, but not corporate. It was a sporting event in the daytime on a Monday and Tuesday, but let’s face it, New York Fashion Week was going on up the street. A man’s got to look good…
A great thrill of Westminster is that, unlike most any other show, everyone knows about it: the folks who work with me at the hospital, the guys at the gym, my dry cleaner. It was a big deal to them that I would judge there. And I was lucky to have friends who don’t usually go to dog shows fly to New York to see me judge. My best friends from New York joined us as well. This meant a great deal to me, to be able to show them what I do and introduce them to the sport at its highest level, a sport responsible for my missing many weekend cookouts and get-togethers over the years. They knew about it, of course, but now it made sense to them.
As I mentioned earlier, you can’t plan everything. Enter the weather: “The Storm of the Century,” as the Weather Channel loved to call it. We live in Chicago and planned to leave Saturday morning. As late as midnight on Friday, we were online trying to see if our flight would be cancelled. We even bought an extra ticket that night for a Sunday departure just in case. As it turned out, our Delta flight left on time and arrived in NYC on a crisp, clear Saturday afternoon. The city was cold, but the streets were cleared.
As we entered the Piers on Monday, I took a deep breath. Here I was, finally. A lovely woman tapped me on the shoulder. I had saved her dog years ago after he jumped off a deck in Chicago, and she recognized me. A former co-worker now living in New York came up to watch. I entered the ring at noon to do my first assignment, Afghan Hounds. All weekend long, people were coming up to me telling me, “We’re going to come and watch you judge Afghans.” I know they meant it in a good way, but I almost wondered if they were expecting a judging experience or a life epiphany. I’m good, but I do have limits. My stewards were none other than the president of the American Kennel Club Dennis Sprung and his lovely wife Susan. Thankfully, they are also my friends. Then the first dog entered the ring, and everything fell into place. I was in the zone. Nothing else was going on; nothing else mattered. Once the breed was over, I posed with the winners for the photos. That evening my winner did me proud in the Group. Back at our hotel, we requested a 6:30 a.m. wake-up call so we could get up and do it all over again. And then we get our much-needed sleep.
Once I returned home, I received an email from Chris and Marguerite Terrell, breeder/owner-handlers of the great Ch. Kabik’s The Challenger, who was the last Afghan Hound awarded Best in Show at Westminster 30 years ago. Their kind words calling my judging “masterful” were thrilling and the icing on the cake.