Ricky, she says, did not so much as add another win to his portfolio as maintain a standard that the other dogs failed to live up to.
“The other dog was not quite as hard in muscle tone and that substance of body that [Ricky] had,” she says. “This is a size/substance breed. [The Russians] wanted a dog that would survive the winter. They also wanted it to look like a black bear. You know the Russians. If I was judging a toy category, I’d be looking for something else.”
And so it goes, all weekend long: a seemingly endless stretch of single-elimination rounds, breed by breed, leading up to the coveted Best in Show held at the end of the day on Saturday.
In the vending ring that’s formed around the Special Events Center, merchants sell leashes, collars, dog beds and blankets. Dog owners can buy keychains with their favorite breeds on them, as well as sequined jackets, T-shirts, stickers, figurines and wall art. Dog-grooming products include shampoos, conditioners, volumizers and finishing spray. Toys are made of rope, bone, fabric and rubber; some of them squeak and some of them do not.
It’s a huge business — the pet industry itself will generate upwards of $60 billion this year, and in this specialty niche the numbers get big real fast.
Jamie Clute, the handler, will spend the rest of the summer and fall showing other people’s dogs. He gestures to his friend Dennis Brown, who handles the grand champion German shepherd named Rumor Has It. She’s won the Working Dog category in every show she’s been in since 2012, with a slew of Best of Breed and Best in Show designations under her collar. She’s already on the short list for Best of Breed at Westminster, and Clute says her relentless touring schedule until then could run her owners upwards of $300,000 this year.
He’s been around the business since he was a kid, he says, and that all of the pro handlers know each other from the circuit. They’re living this week in an RV compound on coliseum property, as they’ll do in Atlanta the next weekend, and in Lexington, Ky. the week after that.
“It’s pretty much a carny,” he says.
He pulls out an inch-thick copy of this year’s Canine Chronicle, an industry mag with content about breeds, show etiquette and animal issues, and also loads and loads of full- and multi-page ads for individual dogs: a schnauzer named Asta (“This Girl is on Fire!”), a standard poodle named Markie and her trainer Michael (“Making More Magic!”), a fuzzy Norwich terrier by the name of Ted (“Type, Attitude and This Face Too…”). Rumor Has It’s ad is a two-page spread with shots from the winner’s circle and a main photo of the dog with her tongue hanging out, standing alert on an impossibly green, clipped lawn.
“If you’re serious about this,” Clute says, “you need to have an ad in the Chronicle.”
The first story, a deep dive about the Airedale, doesn’t begin until page 114.
Out in the competition rings, the field narrows.
In Ring 3, the terriers line up biggest to smallest, 19 of them in all: an Airedale, a blue, a pit bull, a cesky and one of those bedlingtons, with eyes on the sides of its head like a llama.
Apollo, a Manchester terrier, takes the category and will move on.
In Ring 5, Clute handles Sweeney, the lustrous Irish setter, against four other dogs of the same breed. Sweeney loses out to another setter with a better haircut.
In Ring 9, the great Danes run in a circle like a herd of trick ponies as the Best in Breed shows warm up.
A haircut prevails in the non-sporting category, too, when a manicured poodle with tufts at his ankles, tail and haunches takes the breed. An English sheepdog that looks like a full-sized person in a dog suit takes herding, and a whippet named Brazen that looks like a curved bow takes the hounds. More dogs advance: a boxer for the working dogs, a wobbly Pekingese for the toys. Haley Whitcomb, Clute’s partner from Greenville, shows a golden retriever in the sporting category against the setter that beat her Sweeney. Both of them get knocked out by a black cocker spaniel named Time to Thrill.
The big moment is sort of anticlimactic: 1,200 dogs have been whittled down to seven, and most of the groomers, handlers and owners have left the building. What’s left are the crews behind the winning dogs, some industry types and a few dozen spectators in the bleachers.
In addition to the whippet, boxer and black spaniel, there is the manicured poodle, the Pekingese, a toy Manchester terrier and Rumor Has It.
Judge Don Evans is clearly smitten with the German shepherd, pausing to admire her profile as she awaits his hands. The Pekingese, named General Tso, shows well, too, providing comic relief with its wiggly struggles to move across the runway.
But Evans awards the coveted blue ribbon to the whippet named Brazen, who owner Amanda Giles says was born to be a champion.
“She’s an amazing representation of the breed,” Giles says after accepting the ribbon on behalf of the dog. “She’s in beautiful condition. And she has an athletic tone.”
The dog’s a big deal. She would go on to win Best in Show this past weekend in Massachusetts, her 38th in the last two years. Bitch even has her own Facebook page.
Out in the parking lot, a little black lab in a Thundershirt excitedly barks her way to the platform of the diving pool. She runs full speed after the ball her owner throws into the water, but like almost all of the others she hesitates at the point of launch, mustering a last-minute effort to put her about six feet out from the ledge.
She then swims in the water for a while before padding up the ramp and shaking off, blissfully unaware that her jump was sub-par at best.