During a recent visit to Greenfield Kennels in Bowmansville, Pa., I sat down with Ernesto Lara to discuss his ascent to dog show stardom in America. From his countless victories in Mexico to Best in Show at Westminster, Lara shared memories of his lifelong friendship with co-handler Carlos de la Torre and their passion for dogs that paved the way for Affenpinscher GCh. Banana Joe V Tani Kazari’s spectacular win at the Garden this year — the first ever for the breed.
The son of a Mexico City banker and elementary school teacher, Lara credits his mentors, heroes and just plain good luck with his many successes not only in Mexico, but also here in the States. While ‘Joey’ has officially retired, Lara forges ahead to achieve even greater goals with up-and-coming stars under the “Green Team” moniker. In a 3-hour interview, the humble handler shared touching stories of his youth, including an initial fear of big dogs, plus vital skills learned from de la Torre’s mother, all leading to a triumphant career in the American show ring.
Dogs in Review: Tell us about your pets as a child.
Ernesto Lara: Ever since I was a small child, we always had at least one pet dog. I remember a Dalmatian, but my very first dog was a Mexican Pekingese, a mongrel really, indigenous to Mexico. His demeanor was similar to that of a Tibetan Spaniel.
I had an early fear of large dogs. One of my school teachers was known for rescuing dogs. One chased and bit me when I was 8 or 9 years old. I was interested in many breeds at the time, just afraid of the bigger ones.
DIR: When did you first become interested in showing dogs?
EL: When I was 12 we took in an Airedale Terrier that didn’t get along with my cousin’s Samoyeds. That dog totally changed my life. ‘Bengal’ was the turning point. He was difficult at first, but I got him to like me.
I had no idea what I had. My cousin had rescued this dog from a couple going through a divorce. Turns out his pedigree came from the famous Bengal Kennels in England, rumored at the time to be home to all the top-winning Airedales. He became my first show dog whom I then finished and ultimately bred. To this day, Airedales are my favorite breed.
DIR: Who served as your first mentor in Mexico?
EL: That’s the best story of all. One day after school I was walking Bengal through the neighborhood, and two girls approached me, asking if he was an Airedale. I was surprised they recognized the breed. They told me their mother bred and showed them, and lived just a few blocks away. So I went to see her the following day.
As I waited at the door a small child playing with toys said, “What do you want?” It was 5-year-old Carlos!
I showed the pedigree to Carlos’ mother, and she said, “You can’t breed or show him looking like this!” (Untrimmed he looked like an Old English Sheepdog.) Tita took me under her wing that very first meeting, showing me books with properly groomed terriers, and explained how to both groom and handle my Airedale.
At the time there were dog shows every weekend in Mexico. Tita began taking Carlos and me to shows. My very first time exhibiting Bengal was in the northern part of Mexico City. Bob Forsyth was judging Airedales, and we took Winners Dog both days. I ultimately finished Bengal (Mex. Ch. Bengal Espinoza) and moved on to other terrier breeds.
Tita de la Torre is one of the smartest people I know, and Carlos has been my best friend ever since. Everything I learned and still use in dog shows I learned from her. She is a pillar in dogs in Mexico City. Everyone who had anything to do with show dogs at the time had a connection to Tita — including Gabriel Rangel. We have all been friends a very long time.
DIR: Who were your “show heroes” during your years in Mexico?
EL: Fernando Trevi–o, who worked under Dick Cooper, was a role model for all of us. He was like a “poster handler” who could train, show and handle any breed of dog. After retiring, he decided to show a Lakeland Terrier that belonged to Carlos’ mother. The dog was totally transformed in two days. This was my first real glimpse of what a true professional could do.
The renowned terrier man Ric Chashoudian was another I greatly admired. In the late 1980s I met Ric at a show in Mexico, and for me it was like meeting Elvis. I was showing a Bouvier and a Kerry Blue. The first day Ric won Best in Show with his Wire Fox Terrier and the next I won with the Bouvier. The handshake I was really waiting for at the end was his.
He eventually introduced me to Peter Green, and that’s when things really took off. Poking through magazines, the dogs that caught my attention were handled either by Peter or George Ward.
DIR: When did you and Carlos officially become a show handling team?
EL: In the 1980s we officially became a “team.” Because Carlos was 10 years my junior, he needed time to grow up, but he always accompanied us to shows. He actually learned to walk by hanging on to an Airedale! He was born into dogs and is now a third-generation fancier.
While Carlos claims I have the “magic touch,” I could not do this without him. He has great charisma, an incredible knack with dogs and a heart of gold. Everyone loves Carlos. He used to conduct grooming and handling seminars for kids and adults in Mexico City.
If you look back at Westminster, you can see his talent. Joey came out that evening looking like a fresh, brand-new dog right out of the box. He was that perfect and trained to a tee. Much of the credit goes to Carlos.
Carlos won a Best in Show last summer handling Joey and six Bests with the Scottie ‘Phoebe’ (GCh. Lomondview Clementina). He had won a national specialty, beating the top-winning Irish Terrier of all time, right off the bat.
I handle most of the dogs because my shy personality seems to work well in the ring. You want attention to be on the dog. That’s how you really succeed.
DIR: What prompted you to move and start showing in the US?
EL: Since I had achieved such success in Mexico, I wanted to learn more and knew showing in America would bring new challenges and even better dogs. Plus there were more people to learn from. My original plan was to show here for a year and return to Mexico.
At the time I had the top terriers in Mexico, including a Smooth Fox, Kerry Blue and two Lakelands. Little did I realize how much I had to learn until I met Peter Green.
Back in 1985 Esme and Al Treen, who used to run Waukesha Kennel Club in the Midwest, had come to Veracruz to judge a show. I knew just enough English to meet them and explained I wanted to learn from someone in America. They recommended Peter Green, since Ric Chashoudian had retired.
Esme put me in touch with Peter, but I was unable to leave the country at the time due to a requirement to perform military service at age 19 (no longer required). So I kept showing in Mexico for nine more years.
In 1994 Ric informed me that Peter, who was in full swing by that time, was now looking for an assistant who “knew something” and that he had recommended me for the job. After almost a decade, this incredible opportunity dropped right into my lap.
I flew in to Philadelphia and met up with Gabriel Rangel (also a lifelong friend), who had flown in from California for shows. We were told to hang out at the curb with the crates and wait for Peter to pick us up. Next thing I knew someone squeezed my upper arm. It was Peter Green! At first I thought he was checking to see if I was fit enough to do the job since I’m a bit on the thin side.
We stayed at Peter’s house, and this opened up a whole new world for me. I was taken in and treated like family everywhere we went. To be with such a famous handler and see these great dogs firsthand was an unbelievable opportunity. He had a huge operation going on. Four years later we took 46 dogs to Westminster, 67 to Montgomery County and 74 to Bucks County shows. Watching the Green Team machinery work was truly amazing.
DIR: What convinced you to move here permanently?
EL: What kept me hooked was the dogs: good dogs. Peter’s son Andrew was showing Airedales, so that was also a big magnet. I got to work with the Westminster and Montgomery County BIS Norwich Ch. Fairewood Frolic, handled by Peter, as well as Norfolk Terrier Ch. Cracknor Cause Celebre, who won Eukanuba, then Crufts in 2005. How could I leave amid all that excitement?
Beth Sweigart was a critical part of the operation. She coined the name “Green Team,” as a matter of fact. When she came to Pennsylvania, everything took a different shape. I’d like to claim to be the longest assistant working for Peter, but it was really his son Andrew.
I’m so grateful to them for incorporating me into the team — basically taking an unknown under their wing. And I miss the days when we traveled to shows together. Peter and Beth have such a great eye for dogs. Between ring times, they’d often have me check out a special dog whether it was a breed we handled or not. I am so very lucky.
DIR: How would you compare your American show experiences to those in Mexico and other countries?
EL: The industry here is much more professional — less of a hobby. Everything was much more laid back in Mexico. International shows are very interesting because you have a chance to see dogs from areas known for high quality, such as the Scandinavian countries, Italy and England.
This year’s World Show in Budapest should attract many top dogs since it’s very central in Europe. Russian dogs are coming on strong, as are exhibits from China. It’s fantastic to see how the dog shows are different, yet very alike. The cultures are more relaxed, but the driving interest is the same.
DIR: Do you get homesick for your native Mexico?
EL: Yes, very much, but I needed to come here to learn the finer aspects of the sport. It was my calling. However, you give up a lot: your language, your family, the weather, the food. Our main meal was always at lunchtime. It’s not an easy transition. If you’re having a bad day or rough weekend, sometimes you wonder if it’s worth it.
In my case, it was. I really couldn’t have achieved much more in Mexico, and had already stewarded and judged there. The good thing about being a handler all these years is getting to really know the breeds, which better prepares you for judging. When you start out, just preparing a dog to show and bringing them ringside is quite a thrill. I did a lot of that for Peter at first.
And who was the first to congratulate me on my immigration to the US? None other than Anne Rogers Clark. I wouldn’t change that for anything.
DIR: What changes would you like to see in American dog shows?
EL: We always hear about the golden years and how the past was better. Big kennels have gone by the wayside, and we’ve lost a lot of good people. So where are the dogs going to come from? You’re only as good as the dogs you are exhibiting.
I think we must try to remember where this sport comes from. Nowadays the focus is more on points than exhibiting with a large entry of top dogs. If a handler doesn’t make a dog No. 1, they might get fired. In earlier days, handlers were hired to exhibit very nice dogs not just to win, but to compete against the best dogs. That’s why shows are diluted and you rarely see top dogs competing against one another.
I wish every dog show would be patterned after Montgomery County. A beautiful, well-run show, a congregation of specialties, great dogs and people — that’s what dog shows should be about.
A lot of parents don’t encourage their kids to stay in the sport because it truly is very hard work. I came here to work and learn. And with Peter, the work never ends.
DIR: What are your plans/aspirations for the future?
EL: One goal of mine is to someday win the Montgomery County shows. I plan to keep handling full-time and eventually apply for judging credentials.
Some people believe, since I won Westminster, I won’t show class dogs any more. But that’s where the whole thing starts. How could I not show class dogs?
While I’m not retiring, it’s time to start giving back to the fancy. I’ve been so very lucky to have known and learned from top dog people, many of whom are no longer around. As time permits, I plan on getting more involved in club activities. Either way I will devote the rest of my life to the sport of purebred dogs.
From the April 2013 issue of Dogs In Review magazine. Purchase the April 2013 digital back issue or subscribe to receive 12 months of Dogs In Review magazine.