NEW YORK (AP) – There will be a lot of lore, puppies and circumstances going to be at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show this weekend.
But for the first time in 145 years of history, the famous canine competition is trading the buzz of the Big Apple for the airy grounds of a suburban waterfront estate, one of many changes brought about by pandemic precautions.
The show has been postponed from its regular February dates and does not allow in-person spectators. Human participants must be vaccinated or newly tested. Dogs will compete as usual on a green carpet for the televised portions of the competition, but other rounds will take place on an even more traditional green carpet – the lawn at the Lyndhurst Estate in Tarrytown, New York.
And the sought-after Best Show trophy will be presented in a tent outside the Gothic Lyndhurst mansion, not the sports hall in Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden.
“It’s heartbreaking because it’s definitely part of the glamor to go and the nostalgia,” said Renee Rosamilla, coach of Ocala, Fla. “But I’m just, honestly, glad they were able to leave Westminster to us this year.”
The show kicks off with an agility competition on Friday, followed by weekend events, including traditional race judging which leads to the title of Best of Show. It will be conferred on Sunday night on a live broadcast on Fox. (Previous rounds are also televised or streamed.)
Some off the beaten track breeds are looking for the jackpot this year. Dog connoisseurs are keeping an eye out for high-ranking hopefuls, including a lagotto Romagnolo – an Italian truffle-hunting breed that first appeared in Westminster just five years ago – and a Dandie Dinmont terrier, the 15th rarest American breed, by the American Kennel Club’s count. The Dandie, named after a character in Sir Walter Scott’s 1815 novel “Guy Mannering”, is considered endangered even in his home country of the UK.
The show is also expected to feature four breeds eligible to compete for the first time: the barbet, the Argentinian mastiff, the Belgian Laekenois and the Biewer terrier.
Despite the uncertainties and changes associated with the pandemic, Westminster has filled its usual number of entry slots and even expanded the agility list a bit, organizers said.
Yet with many dog shows canceled over the past 15 months, it was difficult, if not impossible, for some dogs to earn the points needed to qualify for Westminster. There were 545 AKC-sanctioned dog shows nationwide last year, down more than 60% from 2019.
Tracy and Peter Rousseau have made the trip to Westminster several times from their cattle ranch in Franktown, Colorado, to make sure their breed – the Norwegian lundehund, the rarest of all in the AKC rankings – is represented. But none of their current dogs qualified, and the couple felt hesitant, anyway, due to virus issues and other issues.
“We really love to show off our dogs, we love to educate people on this quirky little breed,” said Peter Rousseau, a retired civilian military employee and air force sergeant. “With all the pandemic madness and stuff, it just didn’t work out this year. We can’t wait to get back to it. “
The last Westminster show ended on February 11, 2020, when there were only 13 confirmed cases of the coronavirus nationwide, although the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has since concluded that the virus was already more widespread. In about a month, holding a public event was unthinkable.
Westminster spokeswoman Gail Miller Bisher said organizers had spat various scenarios for 2021. A virtual show? An event with archival footage? Fans via video, like at NBA games last summer? Something outside of New York? And outside?
“We thought we owed it down to the dog community and the athletic community to put this in place,” said club president Charlton “Chat” Reynders III. “We just wanted to be sure that we created a place where the person who might be the most nervous about COVID, or health, would feel safe.”
Last fall, the club decided in June on the 67-acre (27-hectare) Lyndhurst, about 25 miles (40 km) north of Manhattan. The estate has hosted a smaller dog show for decades, and the sons of former Gilded Age railroad owner and tycoon / financier Jay Gould had award-winning dogs in Westminster.
The show returns to the Garden in January 2022.
In the meantime, this year’s move requires some tweaking for handlers like Rosamilla, who has to show a harrier named Joker, a flat-coated retriever called Tildy, and a Plott’s dog passing by Fritz.
Unfamiliar with the area around Lyndhurst, Rosamilla initially booked at three different hotels before moving to one. Then she had to plan how to prepare the dogs without the usual “bench” area where handlers have cheek-to-cheek bunks – and a power supply – for grooming. This time around there will be a grooming tent, but competitors who need hairdryers or other electrical equipment will have to wield them in their vehicles, homes, or hotels.
“There are definitely going to be challenges, but I always look forward to going to Westminster. We will be satisfied with whatever he has in store for us, ”said Rosamilla.
And, she said, “I’m sure the dogs are going to love this.”
Associated Press sports writer Ben Walker contributed to this report.