Sage, a miniature poodle, wins top prize at Westminster

NEW YORK — A miniature poodle named Sage won the top prize Tuesday night at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show, an event that often has proven to be a poodle’s realm.

It was the 11th triumph for poodles of various sizes in the United States’ most prestigious canine event — only wire fox terriers have won more — and it was the second best in show win for handler Kaz Hosaka. He led another miniature poodle, Spice, to the trophy in 2002 and said this year’s Westminster would be his last.

“No words,” he said in the ring to describe his reaction to Sage’s win before supplying a few: “So happy — exciting.”

Striding briskly and proudly around the ring, the inky-black poodle “gave a great performance for me,” added Hosaka, who said he’d been competing at Westminster for 45 years.

Sage bested six other finalists to take best in show. Second went to Mercedes, a German shepherd whose handler, Kent Boyles, also has won the trophy before.

Others in the final round included Comet, a shih tzu who won the big American Kennel Club National Championship last year; Monty, a giant schnauzer who arrived at Westminster as the nation’s top-ranked dog and was a Westminster finalist last year; Louis, an Afghan hound; Micah, a black cocker spaniel; and Frankie, a colored bull terrier.

In an event where all competitors are champions in the sport’s point system, winning can depend on subtleties and a standout turn at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, home of the US Open tennis tournament.

The final lineup was “excellent, glorious,” best in show judge Rosalind Kramer said.

To Monty’s handler and co-owner, Katie Bernardin, “just to be in the ring with everyone else is an honor.”

“We all love our dogs. We’re trying our best,” she said in the ring after Monty’s semifinal win. “A stallion” of a dog, he’s solid, powerful and “very spirited,” said Bernardin of Chaplin, Connecticut.

So spirited that while Bernardin was pregnant, she did obedience and other dog sports with Monty because he needed the stimulation.

Dogs first compete against others of their breed. Then the winner of each breed goes up against others in its “group.” The seven group winners meet in the final round.

The best in show winner gets a trophy and a place in dog-world history, but no cash prize.

Besides the winners, there were other dogs that were hits with the crowd. A lagotto Romagnolo named Harry earned a chuckle from the stadium audience by sitting up and begging for a treat from his handler, and a vizsla named Fletcher charmed spectators by jumping up on its handler after finishing a spin around the ring.

There were big cheers, too, for a playful great Pyrenees called Sebastian and a Doberman pinscher named Emilio.

Other dogs that vied in vain for a spot in the finals included Stache, a Sealyham terrier. He won the National Dog Show that was televised on Thanksgiving and took top prize at a big terrier show in Pennsylvania last fall.

Stache showcases a rare breed that’s considered vulnerable to extinction even in its native Britain.

“They’re a little-known treasure,” said Stache’s co-owner, co-breeder and handler, Margery Good of Cochranville, Pennsylvania, who has bred “Sealys” for half a century. Originally developed in Wales to hunt badgers and other burrowing game, the terriers with a “fall” of hair over their eyes are courageous but comedic — Good dubs them “silly hams.”

Westminster can feel like a study in canine contrasts. Just walking around, a visitor could see a Chihuahua peering out of a carrying bag at a stocky Neapolitan mastiff, a ring full of honey-colored golden retrievers beside a lineup of stark-black giant schnauzers, and handlers with dogs far larger than themselves.

Shane Jichetti was one of them. Ralphie, the 175-pound great Dane she co-owns, outweighs her by a lot. It takes considerable experience to show so big an animal, but “if you have a bond with your dog, and you just go with it, it works out,” she said.

Plus Ralphie, for all his size, is “so chill,” said Jichetti. Playful at home on New York’s Staten Island, he’s spot-on — just like his harlequin-pattern coat — when it’s time to go in the ring.

“He’s just an honest dog,” Jichetti said.

The Westminster show, which dates to 1877, centers on the traditional purebred judging that leads to the best in show prize. But over the last decade, the club has added agility and obedience events open to mixed-breed dogs.

And this year, the agility competition counted its first non-purebred winner, a border collie-papillon mix named Nimble.

And Kramer, the best in show judge, made a point of thanking “every dog, whether it’s a house dog or a show dog.

“Because you make our lives whole.”

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