The action takes place in a surprisingly small arena. The floor at Madison Square Garden barely holds six or seven rather small judging rings, with spectators squeezed in five or six deep in the aisles. A few lucky spectators may get a pass to stand in the entrance aisle by the wall, but this space is usually reserved for handlers and their assistants awaiting their turns. Some spectators prefer to sit in the stands and look down on the judging through binoculars. As compared with Crufts, you don’t have to walk miles to see the different breeds; however, because of the comparatively small breed entries, the judging you most want to watch could be over in a matter of minutes.
The Westminster judging arena has now become a very glamorous spectacle. It was not always so, but the face presented to spectators and TV cameras today is lush with purple and gold, elaborate flower arrangements, velvet ring dividers, and an immaculate green carpet that shows off almost any breed to great advantage. (The carpet is one of the amenities Crufts and Westminster share. Obviously both shows realize that getting as close as possible to what could resemble a lawn is appealing to the eye.)
Once you leave the judging arena, however, the scene changes dramatically. The backstage area where the dogs are benched is so chaotic and crowded that it is difficult to believe you are at the same show. That handlers manage to prepare their shining masterpieces of grooming under such circumstances is amazing, and that the dogs take it all with such remarkable sangfroid is admirable. A top American show dog simply cannot be a wilting flower, and backstage at the Garden is no place for a shy puppy.
The daytime breed judging is for the cognoscenti, the serious insiders who come for a close look at top dogs in each breed. However, it is the evening spectacular that is the real Westminster for most people, including the millions watching at home on TV. The arena is opened up into one giant ring, the famous green carpet is immaculate and makes the dogs really stand out, the silver bowls and rosettes on the trophy table glisten under the lights. The judges are in evening dress, and the thousands of spectators behave as if they were at a Broadway show or perhaps at the Super Bowl, hooting and applauding for their favorites. Sometimes, on rare occasions, there is booing, when the usually knowledgeable and always wildly partisan New York ringsiders don’t agree with a judge’s choice. Showing in the big ring at Westminster can be a daunting experience for an inexperienced dog or handler, but the performances are almost always flawless as the judges work their way through the breed winners in one Group after another. Even Westminster is not immune to the media, however. Since the introduction of live TV coverage, all judging stops for a few minutes’ commercial break at regular intervals.
Toward midnight on the second day, the seven finalists sweep under spotlights into the vast arena, one by one, lining up along one side of the ring for the Best in Show judge’s inspection. It is the ultimate honor to judge Best in Show at Westminster, and the person elected to make the final selection will have spent a couple of days secreted away from all the dog show events in a lonely hotel room. During the examination of each dog and its individual turn around the ring, the audience support for the favorites can be deafening, but as the judge, duty done, takes a last look at the finalists and walks back to the table to mark the book, an almost eerie silence falls over the arena. Carrying the magnificent Best in Show rosette and accompanied by two officials carrying silver trophies, the judge walks out toward the dogs again, stops—and announces the winner. For the handler and owner, this is the moment a lifetime dream comes true. It’s the sort of experience that changes people’s lives and makes its own particular demands on both people and dogs: the round of public appearances, press, and TV interviews following a Westminster win require a degree of media savvy that cannot reasonably be expected of dog show winners but that most seem to possess as a matter of course.
No matter what, a Westminster Best in Show ensures fame forever on a list of winners that goes back to 1907. For the other finalists, having nearly won Westminster is more than most people ever accomplish, and for the rest of the fancy there’s always next year. The dream of winning Westminster is very distant and almost unattainable for most—but the possibility, however remote, is there, and the drama of the elimination process provides one of the most fascinating spectacles in this sport.
“Best in Show: The World of Show Dogs and Dog Shows,” by Bo Bengtson, is published by Kennel Club Books, 2008, $34.95