All 2,500 of 'em are champions and they're coming with glossy credentials, but when the mats are placed down and the rings are opened on the storied Madison Square Garden floor tomorrow morning, figuring favorites at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show becomes a colossal crapshoot.
Sure, some front-runners have taken the top prize at this 121-year-old event, but it's a mecca for the underdog. Records, points and thousands of dollars in dog-circuit magazine advertising mean very little once the Garden goes to the dogs.
Pacific Northwest entries have left their mark in the Garden for two decades, producing numerous group titlists and three best-in-show winners - Champion Cede Higgens, a Yorkshire terrier owned by the Charles Switzers of Seattle and shown by their daughter Marlene Lutovsky, 1978; Champion Kabik's the Challenger, an Afghan, owned and handled by Chris Terrell, of Anacortes, 1983; and Champion Gaelforce Postscript, a Scottish terrier owned by Dr. Vandra Huber, of Woodinville, 1995.
But don't expect anything big from Puget Sound area entries in group judging tomorrow and Tuesday nights, although a superlative young Doberman pinscher, Champion Toledobe's Serenghetti (Sera),, owned by Howard Hedinger of Portland, 9-year-old Huston Hedinger of Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., and Richard and Sandra Johnson of Kensington, N.H., is among the top contenders.
The dashing 2 1/2-year-old redhead finished second in the Canine Chronicle magazine national points standings last year with 86,278, winning 45 bests-in-show, and 95 groups. That's the most show championships ever won by a dog before age 3.
"Sera is the best Doberman I've ever handled," says Andy Linton, of Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., who gaited another Dobe, Champion Royal Tudor's Wild as the Wind, to the top prize at the Garden in 1989. "Sera's still young and her best years should still be ahead of her." She now has 47 BIS.
Linton was introduced to Sera at the Doberman Pinscher Club of America national specialty two years ago in Portland. "After looking at her for about 30 seconds, Andy told me she was the best Dobe he'd ever seen," recalls Hedinger. "He had a sponsor tentatively lined up, but I told him I wanted in." And the rest is history.
Linton adds, "The dog's conformation is terrific and she has a sparkling attitude. She thrives on going in the ring. She'll pose for the judges without me prompting her. She simply sells herself."
Doug Holloway, of Newark, Del., and Champion Parsifal Di Casa Netzer (Pa), a 5 1/2-year-old standard schnauzer owned by his wife, Rita, and Gabrio Del Torre of Italy, battled Linton and Sera most of last season for the points title, before pulling ahead late in the year and winning with 93,932, including 51 bests-in-show and 94 group titles.
Should Holloway and Pa win Westminster, they'd establish a first in the history of America's second oldest sporting event. Never has a family member judged best-in-show one year (his father, Roy, did last year) and another won that coveted title the next.
The blue-collar working group has another excellent contender in Champion Nanukes Take No Prisoners, an Alaskan malamute (Tyler), owned by Kathleen Leuer and Sandra D'Andrea of Lockport, N.Y., 38,361, 20 BIS and 43 group wins. It finished 10th in the Canine Chronicle final ratings.
Sera edged Pa by one point at the final show of the year last year, to win the Heinz Pet Products working-group show-dog-of-the-year award (given to the dog that wins the most group titles). "We got the cake, and Andy took the frosting," said Doug Holloway. "It was a good rivalry all year and we remained friends throughout it.
"Pa asks to win," says Holloway, "with his carriage, strength, agility and expression.
Holloway will be looking for his first group title at the Garden, although his entries have won numerous breeds.
"He's just a sturdy working dog, not elegant or flashy like some of the others."
Another exceptional working-group entry, Champion Turo's Futurian of Cachet, a boxer, owned by Jeff Bennett and Nan Eisley-Bennett of Riverside, Calif., which collected 39,139 points, 13 BIS and 60 group titles, died of cancer Dec. 10. He won the group last year and finished eighth nationally in all-breed points.
If they take their breeds, two Western Washington dogs, Champion Steamboat's Highland Piper (Bobby), a Landseer (white base coat with black markings) Newfoundland, handled by Mike Floyd of Bothell and owned by Anne Sorm of Woodinville, and Champion Lajosmegyi Far and Away (Cruise), a 5-year-old Komondor, owned by Anna Quigley and Patricia Turner, of Chehalis, will also find themselves in a working-group shootout.
With four bests in show, Bobby was the No. 1 Newfie in the country last year.
Cruise, a 145-pounder, finished as the No. 2 Komondor nationally last year, after being shown only half the year.
Thirty-eight Washington dogs (19th most of any state) are entered.
Others to keep an eye on during USA Network's coverage beginning at 8 p.m. tomorrow and Tuesday are Champion Revelry's Awesome Blossom (Blossom), a high-octane Lakeland terrier owned by Jean Heath of Pleasanton, Calif., and Bill Cosby (yes, that Bill Cosby) of Santa Monica, Calif., third in the Canine Chronicle standings with 44 bests-in-show and 102 group firsts; Champion Tryst of Grandeur (Tryst), a 5-year-old Afghan hound, owned by Roger, Gregg, Scott and Todd Rechler of Mill Neck, N.Y., fifth in the Canine Chronicle rankings with 38 BIS and 95 group championships; Champion Spotlight's Spectacular (Penny), as 4 1/2-year-old Dalmatian, owned by Mrs. Alan Robson of Glenmore, Pa., sixth in Canine Chronicle listings with 30 BIS and 114 group wins.
The three are the all-time winning dogs in their breeds.
But insiders warn don't overlook Champion Loteki Supernatural Being (Kirby), a papillon that is the defending toy-group titlist, and Champion Bayshore's Flapjack, a 7-year-old Australian shepherd.
Owned by John Oulton and Lou Ann King, of Norwalk, Ct., the perky papillon finished 11th in the Canine Chronicle standings with 35,913 points, along with 19 BIS and 46 group wins.
Flapper, the top-winning Aussie shepherd ever, is co-owned by Linda and Frank DiSanto of Brooklyn, Mich., and J. Frank Baylis of Toms Brook, Va., was guided to 98 herding-group wins and 21 bests-in-show by Jim Moses of Carrollton, Ga., a noted German shepherd handler.
Three of last year's seven group winners - the Afghan, papillon and Dalmatian - return to defend.
And, oh, yes, if you're wondering. Dobermans have won four grand prizes at Westminster, Lakeland terriers two, but never has an Alaskan malamute, standard schnauzer, Australian shepherd, papillon or Dalmatian been accorded the honor.
The USA Network (8 p.m.) telecast will be handled by Dave Frei of Woodinville and Joe Garagiola. Since 1990, Frei, an Afghan breeder along with his wife Sandy, has provided the commentary. Last year's show drew a record Nielsen audience of 3.9 million households over both nights.
In addition to coverage of working, terrier, toy and nonsporting groups tomorrow and the sporting, hound, herding and best-in-show Tuesday, the telecasts will present features on how to shop for a dog; Milwaukee Alaskan malamutes that have been shown in the conformation ring and competed in Alaska's grueling Iditarod race; bomb-detection dogs working at the New York Port Authority; Take the Lead, a group that conducts fund-raisers (one in Portland last month raised $40,000) to provide financial assistance to those in the dog fancy suffering from life-threatening or major illnesses; and a profile of the statuesque Mr. U's Music Man (Satch) a bullmastiff, owned by Bill Underwood of Albuquerque, N.M., that won the 1992 Westminster working-group title and is now a family pet that visits nursing homes.