By Steven Chan
It was around 1876 when a group of men who frequented the once-statuesque Westminster Hotel in Manhattan for cocktails, ego-building, and the sharing of embellished (and perhaps fabricated) tales of their sporting accomplishments decided to form a club. They purchased a kennel, sport-grounds, and trainer with the intentions of competing, comparing, and breeding their hounds—but soon realized they would have to come up with a name for the organization. Lacking any originality, one of the members suggested they name their club after their favorite watering hole, so it became the Westminster Breeding Association.
The group went on to assist in staging a dog show in Philadelphia in celebration of the country’s centennial, and due to its success, members decided to produce an event in New York and in 1877 incorporated the Westminster Kennel Club.
Members embarked on establishing the event, away from the field, where they could show and compete. It would be the first annual New York Bench Show of Dogs, under the watchful eye of the Westminster Kennel Club—held at Gilmore Gardens, the same site where Madison Square Garden is located.
According to the (then popular) Forest and Stream magazine, the new show with an assembly of over 1,200 dogs was more than mutts sniffing for a bone. “To say the dog show held in the city last week was a success would but poorly convey an idea of what the result really was. It was a magnificent triumph for the dogs and for the projectors of the show. We question if on any previous occasion has there ever assembled in this city such a number of people at one time, and representing as much of the culture, wealth, and fashion of the town.”
Other written accounts state, “The show is such a hit that it is extended to four days to accommodate the overwhelming public interest. The gate for the first day of the show is estimated as high as 8,000. On the second day, 20,000 spectators attended—a number matched on the third day and providing the impetus to add a fourth day.” Hence, the Westminster had proudly become America’s Dog Show.
For perspective, here are some of the significant inventions, events, and disasters the organization has been able to power through during its proud history:
• Westminster pre-dates the invention of the light bulb, the automobile, the zipper, the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Washington Monument.
• Its origins came before manned air flight and the establishment of the World Series.
• Since Westminster held its first show 141 years ago, there have been 26 men elected president, and 12 states have joined the union.
• The dog show has outlasted three previous versions of Madison Square Garden and currently staged in MSG IV. It is one of only four events to be held in all four “Gardens.”
According to the Westminster Press Office, “The dog show has survived power outages, snowstorms, a national depression, major recessions, two World Wars, multiple world-wide conflicts, and a tugboat strike that threatened to shut down the city—in the process becoming the second-longest continuously held sporting event in the country. Only the Kentucky Derby has been staged longer—but by just one year!”
You may ask: What is so important about a dog show?
The easy answer is that this dog show serves as a benchmark to evaluate the breeding stock of animals who will go on to produce future generations. It also allows for breeders to compete and to assess the “best of breed.”
As for the Bench Dog Show, Westminster remains one of the few clubs that have their entries categorized by breed and staged in a manner which allows the public to interact with their favorite dog. Patrons are also able to speak with owners, breeders, and handlers, for a better understanding as to why we are fascinated by this domesticated animal.
During the 142nd Westminster Kennel Club event, over 200 breeds will show, with approximately 3,000 competitors from around the country—including a robust contingency from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. New England will make up over 10 percent of entries when they arrive with 330 dogs.
With these numbers, it isn’t surprising to meet or recognize the names of the dogs, their owners, or trainers as you tour the Piers 92/93 event space or “Best of Show” at the Garden.
If you’re interested in one of the fastest growing spectator events to have encompassed the attention of individuals and families alike, this year you’ll have a couple of options for enjoying the show. You may attend the live shows beginning Saturday, February 10 (no events on Sunday), to continue on Monday and Tuesday, February 12 and 13, or tune into this year’s newly expanded television coverage.
For more information regarding the show, contact westminsterkennelclub.org.