America's 2nd Oldest Sporting Event- A Dog Show

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Sports fans will be tickled and amused to learn that the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, held every February at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, is the second oldest sporting event in the country.

First held in 1877, the canine contest is second only to another sports gala that took off in the 19th century, the Kentucky Derby. The latter had started running just two years earlier.

The Westminster gathering originated as a show for gun dogs, mainly Setters and Pointers, owned by a group of hunters who met regularly at NYC’s Westminster Hotel. Later formed into a kennel club, the organization handed out prizes such as pearl handled pistols and even donated money to the ASPCA.

The best of the breeds tournament was popular from the outset, drawing over 1,200 dogs and extending the 4-legged pageant into a 4-day affair. “Forrest & Stream” magazine called the inaugural show a triumph that represented “culture, wealth and fashion of the town”.

The dog spectacle has gone uninterrupted for all of its 141 years, even surviving the Great Depression and two World Wars. It is the most prestigious of the three major canine displays in the U.S. The other two are the National Dog Show and the AKC/Eukanuba National Championship.

Over the years, the competition’s rich and colorful registrants included Staghounds from General George Custer’s pack, Deerhounds bred by the Queen of England, a Siberian Wolfhound bred by the Czar of Russia, and Collies owned by J.P. Morgan.

1933 saw baseball legend Lou Gehrig enter his black German Shepherd, Afra of Cosalta, in the competition. The female took second place in the Open Bitch class.

The event’s most coveted prize, “Best In Show” (BIS), was first awarded in 1907 to a Smooth Fox Terrier. As a breed, the Terrier Group has earned the most honors since the show was introduced.

2008 witnessed the first Beagle to claim the BIS title, setting off a celebration dubbed “Beaglemania” by the media.

Selecting a single winner out of thousands of lovable, furry friendlies is no easy task. Dogs are measured against their breed standards to see how close they match the ideal specimen of that breed.

Those standards can include references to the jobs the animals were historically bred to perform. While today man’s best friend is bred mostly for companionship, the judges look for purity of physical traits as well as movement and temperament.

In the initial rounds, dogs compete at their own breed level and then advance to their respective groups- Sporting, Hound, Working, Terrier, Toy, Non-Sporting, and Herding. The highest scoring canine in each category then moves on to the final BIS contest.

In 2017, the top spot went to Rumor, a female German Shepherd.

The youngest dog to ever win the BIS was a 9-month old Rough Collie in 1929. The oldest was a 10-year old Sussex Spaniel named Stump, in 2009. Stump was later featured on the cover of AARP magazine.

In the end, champion and handler take home more than just a trophy. The reign begins the next day with media appearances on morning television shows and visits to major sites in the Big Apple.

Like a beauty pageant winner, the dog becomes a national ambassador and named “America’s Dog” for the next year.

With sold out crowds at Madison Square Garden and millions tuning in to the event on TV and online, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show is truly the Super Bowl of the canine world.

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