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Top dogs ready for Westminster best in showdown

Saturday, February 8, 2014 | 12:01 a.m. CST
Swagger, an old English sheepdog, is posed for photographs Feb. 11, 2013, after winning the herding group during the Westminster Kennel Club dog show at Madison Square Garden in New York. The Westminster rookie became an instant crowd favorite and almost won Best in Show.

NEW YORK — An underdog from Seattle, hawking for a crowning title. A popular favorite down the road from Denver, bringing plenty of swagger. A packed crowd of hollering fans, millions more watching at home. And a big winter storm barreling toward the Big Apple.

Sounds like a Super Bowl — it is, only in a different sport. Are you ready for some dog show?

Welcome to Westminster CXXXVIII. The pinnacle for pooches in America, with boxers, beagles and Boston terriers among the 2,845 four-legged friends competing for the coveted best in show silver bowl.

The winner of the 138th Westminster Kennel Club will be picked Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden. Among the top contenders: a wire fox terrier, a bichon frise and a Portuguese water dog, the same breed that President Barack Obama's family owns.

Among those who might tune in: Seattle Seahawks tight end Zach Miller.

"I've seen it on TV. I don't watch it from start to end, but I have watched it before," Miller said shortly before the Seahawks routed the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl right across the Hudson River.

Emma and Murphy could join Miller in front of the television set — they're his goldendoodles. Mixed-breed dogs can compete Saturday in the agility run that's new to Westminster but aren't eligible when the main portion of the show begins Monday morning for purebreds.

A Seattle-Denver matchup might develop on this side of the river, too.

An old English sheepdog called Swagger was a surprise runner-up to Banana Joe, the affenpinscher last February. Bounding around the show to a loud ovation, the Westminster rookie became an instant crowd favorite and almost took the top prize.

Swagger comes from Colorado Springs, Colo., where owner Colton Johnson is a Broncos season ticket holder.

"If our dog is fortunate enough to get that far again, I guarantee you he'll show up a lot better than the Broncos did," Johnson said.

Standing is his way might be Riley, the Irish water spaniel that was among the nation's best show dogs in 2013. She's originally from outside Seattle and won a best in show ribbon Sunday right before the Super Bowl kicked off.

"It's an underdog from the Northwest," owner Bethany Urban said.

Oh, another Super Bowl connection: When Westminster TV host David Frei works his 25th show, he'll wear the championship ring his father earned when the Broncos beat Atlanta in 1999 for their second straight crown. Jerry Frei was an assistant coach and Denver's director of college scouting for two decades.

David Frei keeps a ball from that Broncos-Falcons game in his office. He spent two years in the Broncos' public relations department and later worked in the Kingdome press box during Seahawks games.

From the green fields of the gridiron to the green carpet of the Garden. Fitting that ESPN commentator Keith Olbermann once called the Super Bowl "the Westminster Kennel Club Show of football."

Breed judging begins Monday morning, with the hound, toy, nonsporting and herding winners to be chosen that night on CNBC. The sporting, working and terrier group champions will be picked Tuesday, and judge Betty Regina Leininger will point to her best in show winner shortly before 11 p.m. on the USA Network.

A dog to watch if it reaches the best-of-seven final ring: Fifi the Doberman. She's come close before, and in Leininger's last four best-in-show assignments around the country, twice she's picked Fifi.

There are 190 breeds and varieties of dogs eligible to compete, though there were no entries from the American water spaniels, Norwegian lundehunds or Entlebucher mountain dogs. There are 76 Labrador retrievers, 58 golden retrievers and 52 French bulldogs.

Dogs are set to come from all 50 states, along with Thailand, Brazil and Finland.

Tampa Bay Rays catcher Ryan Hanigan has entered his Australian shepherd. Detroit Tigers head groundskeeper Heather Nabozny is bringing her bullmastiff, who's rambled around Comerica Park and is appropriately named Queen of Diamonds.

Nabozny calls her Dottie, as in Dottie Hinson, the character Geena Davis played in the 1992 baseball film "A League of Their Own." After preparing the Tigers' turf for the World Series and being part of several Super Bowl field crews, Nabozny is heading to her first Westminster.

"This is huge," she said.


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