TARRYTOWN, N.Y. (AP) — The top dog gets crowned at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show on Wednesday night, with a field that includes a French bulldog with an NFL connection, a bloodhound, an English setter, a German shepherd, a Maltese, a Samoyed and a Lakeland terrier.
Out of more than 3,000 dogs entered, just seven will make it far enough to vie for the best in show prize at the most prestigious U.S. dog show. Usually held in winter at New York City's Madison Square Garden, the show moved to the suburban Lyndhurst estate last year and this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Each finalist represents a different canine “group,” or type, such as hounds or terriers.
Westminster is often described as the Super Bowl of U.S. dog shows, and Winston the French bulldog aims to make it so for co-owner Morgan Fox, a defensive lineman who was just signed by the Los Angeles Chargers and has played for the Los Angeles Rams and the Carolina Panthers.
Fox said he was “ecstatic” when Winston made the finals.
“He’s basically a superstar,” Fox said by phone Wednesday.
The dog came his way from his grandmother, Sandy Fox, who has bred and shown Frenchies for years. Morgan Fox grew up with one and says that as he watched Winston mature, he knew the dog was a winner in both appearance and character.
“He's a joy to be around," Fox said. “He always walks around with as much of a smile on his face as a dog can have."
Winston, currently the top-ranked dog in the country, faces Striker, a Samoyed that also made the finals last year; River, a big-winning German shepherd, and Trumpet, a bloodhound descended from the 2014 winner of another major show, the Thanksgiving-season National Dog Show.
After topping the canine rankings last year, Striker has lately been hitting a few dog shows “to keep his head in the game,” said handler Laura King.
What makes the snow-white Samoyed shine in competition? “His heart,” said King, of Milan, Illinois.
“His charisma shows when he’s showing,” and he vocally complains when he’s not, she said.
While he was quiet in the ring, an Alaskan Malamute provided a yowling — cheering?— soundtrack for a semifinal round featuring the Samoyed and other breeds classified as working dogs.
Then there are MM the Lakeland terrier — terriers have won many a Westminster — and a Maltese that clearly is aiming for stardom: Her name is Hollywood.
But the belle of the ball could be an English setter. Belle made the finals after being squired around the ring by one of her breeders and owners, Amanda Ciaravino — a feat at an event where many top contenders are accompanied by full-time, career handlers.
“It’s amazing," an emotional Ciaravino said. "I’m so proud of her.”
Monty, a giant schnauzer that made the semifinals Wednesday night but didn't advance further, is a son of the dog that won Westminster's runner-up prize in 2018. Classified as a working dog, Monty enjoys yard work — which, to him, means presenting a football to be thrown while handler and co-owner Katie Bernardin's husband, Adam, is mowing the lawn, she said.
Another competitor, Ooma, was the only Chinook that showed up. The sled-pullers are the official dog of the state of New Hampshire, but they’re rare nationwide.
“I would love to see a couple more” in the Westminster ring, said Ooma’s breeder, owner and handler, Patti Richards of West Haven, Vermont. “Without people who will show and breed, we’re in danger of losing our breed.”
Bonnie the Brittany is owner-handler Dr. Jessica Sielawa's first show dog, and the two didn't come away with a ribbon on Wednesday. But their teamwork extends beyond the ring.
Bonnie accompanies Sielawa to work at her chiropractic practice in Syracuse, New York, where "she's really helped people with their emotional stress,” Sielawa said.
She plans to get her show dog certified as a therapy dog, too.