‘Alma Mater Factor’ Brings Fans to Show



Spectators have emotional, spiritual connection with participants

By Sandy Robins

updated 11:39 a.m. PT, Tues., Feb. 14, 2006


NEW YORK – The talk on the streets of New York is all about dogs in the Garden.

For the uninitiated, this translates into chitchat about America’s top show dogs currently strutting their stuff in Madison Square Garden to mark the 130th anniversary of this hugely popular event.

So why do people come from all over the United States and jump through hoops to get a seat at Westminster?

“It’s got a lot to do with the Alma Mater Factor,” says David Frei, director of communications for the Westminster Kennel Club in New York.

“We have such a spiritual and emotional connection with our dogs. And if you own a particular breed, you automatically have a vested interest when those dogs come into the ring. Its human nature to compare the dogs on the green carpet to the pooch cuddled up next to you at home.

“People realize that if they gave their dog a few less cookies, a weekly grooming instead of a once-a-month bath, and did a little road work, they could be up there too. This is a sport where professionals and amateurs can work along side one another in the show ring.”

Frei also points out that people enjoy the competition and avidly watch to see who will become America’s top dog.

And then there’s the entertainment value too.

“When you take your dog for a walk in the park, you are never going to get the opportunity of seeing 165 different breeds and varieties,” adds Frei.

Over the years, entrants have included royalty like former Russian czars and German emperors that have taken part in the competition. Not to mention current celebrities who mingle amongst the ordinary folk in the general seating.

“This is a 50th birthday present for my wife Marlene,” says Peter Connor of Weston, Mass. “She’s always enjoyed watching the show on TV. So this year, I decided to surprise her and I must say we are really enjoying the live event.”

Karen Mustard of Westfield, N.J., has been coming for a number of years. This year, she decided to introduce her friend Karen Campbell and their children to the fun and showmanship that epitomizes Westminster.

“We’re looking to get a dog,” says Karen Campbell, “and its great place to get to see all the different breeds and talk to people. Besides, it’s been a fun outing for the kids.”

“We managed to get the last flight out of O’Hare airport in Chicago before the storm this past weekend,” said James Kinney who is attending for the first time with his wife, Lorrie.

“We’ve watched on TV for the past twentysomething years. Besides, we are ‘doggy people.’ We’ve shown Norwich terriers. This year we have friends competing at Westminster so we are here to cheer them on too.”

Laurel Whitworth of Pawling, N.Y., took her daughter of out school for the day to come to the garden to cheer on her mother and her daughter’s grandmother Sheila Sanders, whose border terrier Caleb is a show contender.

“He has won all the shows he’s been entered in and he seems to be on a roll. So we have come to cheer him on,” says Whitworth.

Janice Scott of Cocoa, Fla., has a Doberman entered in this year’s event. Apart from her vested interest, she has friends also taking part with black Russian terriers and Kerry blues.

“I come every year,” says Scott. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

Carol and Mike Morgan from St. Paul, Minn., decided to celebrate Valentine’s Day with a special visit to New York to go to the dog show.

“It’s something I have watched growing up and to be able to be here is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. One day, when my kids are grown up and out of the house, I would love to get a dog and get involved in the competitive dog world.”

Margi Bumen of New York, Me., is also a show regular.

“I have Bernese Mountain dogs and I am here to support the Bernese mountain dog club of New England and to socialize with friends.

Harry Booker of Philadelphia arrived looking very dapper in green and red plaid trousers and a black velvet jacket, carrying a bunch of chocolate roses in red wrappers.

“I show and breed Neapolitan mastiffs,” he said. “I am not taking part this year but I always bring a little something for my friends to cheer them on. This time I’ve brought edible roses.”

Tickets are at a premium and the organizers are expecting another sell out. Outside the main entrance there is a growing line of people who will do anything — even jump through hoops if necessary — to get inside.

Sandy Robins is an award-winning freelancer writer based in Irvine, Calif. Her work has appeared in numerous publications in the United States and internationally.

URL: http://nbcsports.msnbc.com/id/11333592/


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