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February 8, 2013 at 6:00 AM

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Westminster preview: Q&A with Billy Wheeler

Wire-fox terrier, GCH CH AfterAll Painting the Sky_1.jpgGCH CH Afterall Painting the Sky, a California-owned wire fox terrier known as "Sky," steps into his silver trophy in December after winning the AKC/ Eukanuba National Championship (AENC), in Orlando, and its $50,000 Best-in-Show cash prize. He's the No. 1 dog in the country so far this year. Photos by Kayla Bertagnolli at Best In Show Daily.

Billy_New_jw2.jpgBilly Wheeler writes about the dog-show world in his respected blog,, and in a Back Story column for the website, He talks with The Seattle Times in a Q&A before heading from his home in Tennessee to Madison Square Garden in New York for the 137th Westminster Kennel Club Show on Monday and Tuesday.

Opening night of the competition will air on CNBC and closing night will air on USA Network. Here's how the two nights break down:

On Monday, the Hounds, Toys, Non-Sporting and Herding Groups will be televised on CNBC at 8 p.m. ET.

On Tuesday, the Sporting, Working and Terrier Groups, followed by Best In Show will be shown on USA Network starting at 8 p.m. ET.

Please note that the West Coast telecast is delayed. For live results of each day's competition and streaming videos of the judging for the 187 breeds and varieties, see the Westminster Kennel Club website .

Wheeler will host an online chat during the broadcasts with lots of information on the competitors.

Q: The nationwide dog-show circuit runs from the first weekend in January through mid-December, culminating with the AKC/ Eukanuba National Championship (AENC), in Orlando, and its $50,000 Best-in-Show cash prize. Yet you've deemed Westminster -- without its monetary jackpot or warm climes -- "the greatest dog show on the planet." What's your reasoning?

A: Let's start with the fact that this is the 137th consecutive show hosted by the Westminster Kennel Club. Only the Kentucky Derby is older and it is in, well, Kentucky. New York is still the media center of the universe. Nowhere else does our sport receive the exposure it does at this show.

Q: GCH CH Afterall Painting the Sky, a California-owned wire fox terrier known as "Sky," took home that big Eukanuba prize in December and immediately followed up with wins in Palm Springs in early January. She was among your top 10 in all-breed rankings in 2012, and you now rate her as the No. 1 dog in the country. Does winning at Eukanuba give her an edge in the Garden?

A: Sky finished 2012 as the No. 4 dog all breeds, taking home the AENC, the largest show in the U.S. last year. While Sky did get a head start on the field with the two big wins in Palm Springs, she will have competition at the Garden, as several other dogs have now posted multiple best-in-show wins early in the year.

In addition to the five Best in Shows Sky has logged through this past weekend, she has a remarkable string of 17 consecutive Terrier Group Ones.

No dog has dominated its group like Sky has over the last year. However, because the typical Terrier entry at a show has fewer dogs and is only worth 35 percent to 40 percent of the larger Sporting entry, a Terrier cannot count on the Group wins to stay competitive. It must have Best in Show wins.

westnew 138663462_MN001_DOG.jpgDoberman pinscher GCH CH Protocol's Veni Vidi Vici, right, wins the Working Group at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show last year at Madison Square Garden in New York. She is shown by breeder/owner/handler Jocelyn Mullins. Photo by Michael Nagle / Getty Images

Q: Westminster has altered its game plan this year. Because of renovations at the Garden, the bustling and typically packed daytime best-of-breed contests will be held at Piers 92/94, a more spacious venue across town. Breed winners -- dogs and their entourages -- will be transported to the Garden for the televised group competition in the evening.

It may not sound like much of a feat for us watching comfortably from afar. But, in reality, it could be a logistical nightmare, schlepping thousands of dogs, gear, spectators and exhibitors back and forth in the madness of Manhattan -- in the dead of winter, no less. How might this change impact the contest?

A: The only ones that this really impact are the breed winners -- the 175 dogs that win during the daytime judging.

Still for those who are showing multiple dogs it will be a nightmare.

Don't forget most of the arriving and departing from the Piers will be during rush hour, on a workday.

However, these guys are mostly the professionals and have lots of experience managing the logistics.

The extra space afforded in the benching and grooming areas more than compensates for the inconveniences in my mind.

Q: You've said that a breed win at Westminster trumps many Best-in-Show wins in lesser-known venues. Which best-in-breed competitions will you be most anxious to watch at the Piers?

A: Just about every breed ring will hold surprises but, I'm looking forward to the standard poodles.

Last year's judging was a major disappointment as the big poodles were relegated to a tiny ring and the two top ranked poodles never got a chance to show their best and ended up losing the breed. The new venue will have much larger rings and lots of natural light.

I look for breakout performances in several breeds. A few breeds that I think will be hotly contested are the English setters, whippets, boxers, Welsh terriers, pugs and bouvier des Flandres.

Oakley the German Wire-Haired Pointer_2.jpgQ: A wealth of the all-breed top 10 dogs from 2012 are still in competition and doing very well in the early 2013 shows.

Oakley, the German wire-hair pointer who was your top dog last year (pictured right), is still in your top 10 for 2013. The beautiful Doberman, Fifi, who was your No. 3 in 2012 and is now No. 2 for 2013, swept the big Golden Gate shows in the Bay area recently. Classie, a miniature pinscher and Oregon native, is still in your top 10 as is Jewel, an American foxhound, and Peyton, an English Springer Spaniel.

What can you tell us about the momentum that seems to have carried over into 2013 rankings? What do the points accrued so early in this season tell you?

A: I do think there is something to the momentum thing. I'm not sure I would take a dog at the peak of his career and let him sit at home for six weeks just before the biggest show of his career. However, many have done it.

This year several dogs will come into New York riding the wave of a very successful January.

What's different this year is that more dogs have accrued more points in January than in previous years. In 2012, the top five dogs had accrued a little over 32,000 points. This year the top five are just shy of 42,000 points, a whopping 31 percent increase.

I'm not sure that this carries much weight at Westminster, but it will have ramifications on the rest of the season.

Standard Poodle, GCH CH Brighton Lakeridge Encore.jpgQ: The local standard poodle from last year, GCH CH Brighton Lakeridge Encore (pictured right), is also still in the game. Ally is handled by Tim Brazier, of Mill Creek, and co-bred by Debra Ferguson Jones, of Renton. She picked up two Best in Shows in Puyallup last month and has done well in the groups so far this year. You've got her ranked No. 3 all-breed right now.

She didn't make it out of the breed competition at the Garden last year. Based on her performance this year and the judging lineup in New York, might she do better this time around?

A: As you know I have Ally picked as my favorite to win the Non-Sporting Group.

She has to get out of the breed first and that will be the challenge. Breed judge Charlotte Patterson did give Ally a Best in Show back in May at the Mount Baker Kennel Club show in Lynden, Whatcom County, but there are no sure things at Westminster.

Q: Speaking of last year, watching the breed results left many heads spinning. Many top dogs never made it out of the breed competition, including the No. 1 dog of 2011. What surprised you the most about the judging at the Garden last year?

A: In addition to the standard poodle judging and the black cocker spaniel, GCH CH Casablanca's Thrilling Seduction, being upset, the No. 1 terrier at the time, the wire fox terrier, GCH CH Steel Your Heart, also lost in the breed.

I would also say that the Group One win by the wire-haired Dachshund, GCH CH Raydachs Playing With Fire V Gleishorbach SW, was a major surprise but well deserved.

Q: Last year, the Irish setter, who was a huge winner in 2011, came out of retirement to take the sporting group in the Garden. Do you know of any dogs coming out of retirement for Westminster who could make this year's contest particularly interesting?

A: While the appearance of 2010's No. 3 dog all breeds, the Irish setter, GCH CH Shadagee's Caught Red Handed, was a surprise to most of us, this year's ghost from Westminsters past is likely to be the previously discussed black cocker, Beckham.

Beckham has been shown only sporadically since breaking the career Best-in-Show record for a Sporting dog last summer, but he did make an appearance at the AENC, and I think he wants a big win to close his career.

Q: Reserve Best in Show is a new category for Westminster. What does it mean for the dog that wins it?

A: Since its introduction in July last year, the Reserve Best in Show has been a point of debate.

While the award is a major accomplishment, it has not received the respect it should.
I bet if you asked 10 people who were at the AENC this year who was the Reserve Best In Show, nine could not tell you. (It was the Saluki from Sweden, GCH CH Shiraz California Dreamin'.) I do know that virtually no one can tell you what dog had the most Reserve Best in Shows in the United States last year.

Until the award carries some extra points and AKC starts including the award in its reports, people will not recognize it as a goal worth pursuing. That being said, the first ever Reserve Best in Show at Westminster will be a prized award indeed.

 Miniature Pinscher, GCH CH Marlex Classic Red Gla.jpgQ: Aside from Classie (pictured right) and Ally, are there any Pacific Northwest dogs to keep an eye out for in New York? Fifty-eight dogs from Washington will be competing this year.

A: I saw several dogs in Portland earlier this year that will be players at Westminster.

Two that I liked were the black and tan coonhound, GCH CH Windbourne HD Ranch King of the Road, bred and owned by Shelley Campbell, of Molalla, Ore., and the soft coated wheaten terrier, GCH CH Doubloon's Extreme Play, bred and owned by Elana Landa, of Bothell. Both these dogs are the best of their respective breed I've seen in the past year.

Q: Which big winners will likely be retiring after Westminster? What will the new playfield look like?

Wire-fox terrier, GCH CH AfterAll Painting the Sky_3.jpgA: While some of last year's top dogs have already declared their retirement, others are being much more coy.

One dog that is retiring is the affenpinscher, GCH CH Banana Joe V Tani Kazari, and one that is definitely not retiring is the wire fox, Sky (pictured right).

I expect Sky to be campaigned aggressively all year. She already has well over 11,000 points this year.

Unless one of our current top five stays around to challenge her, the chances of her losing her lead are pretty slim. The huge Kentuckiana Cluster in Louisville, Ky., in March will play a major role in deciding that.

I suspect that by the end of March, we will see only a couple of last year's dogs still around.

Q: With the inevitable retirements, are there any Pacific Northwest dogs to keenly follow for the remainder of the year?

A: While I love the previously mentioned coonhound and wheaten, their owners have normally eschewed national campaigns and stayed pretty close to home.

However, professional handler and American Staffordshire terrier breeder Ed Thomason, of Rochester, Thurston County, can always be counted on for a competitive AmStaff. His GCH CH Alpine's Ring of Fire was shown mostly in Texas last year but is now back with Ed.

Michael J Dougherty - WKC 13.jpgQ: You took a look at the judging panel in an earlier Back Story column , where you gave us a glimpse of each judge and which dogs he or she has favored in the past. Would you take a closer look at the Best in Show judge, Michael J. Dougherty (pictured right), for us? What kinds of dogs does he tend to like? We see in the past he has put up Chet, the harrier who was in your top 10 last year. What is he going to be looking for in that final lineup?

A: Judge Dougherty grew up with dogs and had major successes with his whippets and bichon frise. However, his Best-in-Show choices have been quite eclectic. In his last three outings, he chose a border collie, a Pekingese, and a Gordon setter. An accomplished dog man, he will go with the one he fancies that evening.
Q: John Avello, executive director of Race & Sports for Wynn Las Vegas who posted betting odds on Westminster, this year has a Doberman as the 7-to-1 favorite to win Best in Show. A German wire-haired pointer is 8-to-1; a wire-fox terrier is 10-to-1; a miniature pinscher is 15-to-1 and a standard poodle is 22-to-1. A black cocker spaniel is 35-to-1.

What lineup would you like to see in the final Best in Show competition?

A: Well, what I would like to see I will keep to myself, but I have already published who I think will be in the final ring. They are the black cocker spaniel, GCH CH Casablanca's Thrilling Seduction, the American foxhound, GCH CH Kiarry's Pandora's Box, the Doberman pinscher, GCH CH Protocol's Veni Vidi Vici, the wire fox terrier, GCH CH AfterAll Painting the Sky, the miniature pinscher, GCH CH Marlex Classic Red Glare, the standard poodle, GCH CH Brighton Lakeridge Encore, and the Pembroke Welsh corgi, GCH C Coventry Allure at Wyndstar.

I expect the cocker to finally get his big win and the wire fox to take home the first ever Westminster Reserve Best In Show, a trophy worth treasuring.

All photos of dogs, unless otherwise noted, by Kayla Bertagnolli at Best In Show Daily.

Photo of Best in Show judge Michael J. Dougherty from the Westminster Kennel Club.

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