Economic woes take a bite out of Westminster
NEW YORK — Munching on a hot dog, Monica Schott surveyed the row of French bulldogs backstage at Madison Square Garden.
Pretty sparse, by Westminster Kennel Club standards.
"It’s very noticeable," the longtime handler from upstate New York said Monday. "I was hoping to see that a lot of people would spend their money to come here, to give them some outlet from what’s going on with the economy. I guess not."
From the no-show Borzois to the empty seats, it was abundantly clear: The nation’s recession has taken a bite out of America’s No. 1 dog show.
"We understand it," said Westminster spokesman David Frei, the TV host of the USA Network coverage. "For most people, dog shows are a hobby. When money gets tight, people spend it on food and schools and things they absolutely need."
There are 170 breeds and varieties at this 133rd edition of Westminster, with a perky Brussels griffon and a monkey-faced affenpinscher among the favorites. Best in show judge Sari Tietjen will point to her choice Tuesday night.
A 7-year-old Scottish deerhound named Tiger Woods — his owner is a huge golfer — won the hound group Monday night, then a Scottish terrier took the terrier group.
"Maybe I ought to have a Scotch," said Gabriel Rangel, the terrier’s handler.
The standard poodle called Yes was best among the nonsporting dogs and a puli took the herding group.
Last February, the Garden was packed with more than 15,000 roaring fans when a precocious beagle called Uno was picked as best in show. Uno was back Monday night for a victory tour, but the Garden was only two-thirds full to see him.
The green-carpet event did not fill its usual allotment of 2,500 dogs in a single day. There were 2,486 (at $75 per entry) when judging began in the morning. Tickets (from $40 to $155 for a single day) were moving more slowly, too.
All over, the economy is taking a similar toll. The Super Bowl was missing a lot of its usual buzz, and recent college football bowl games felt the brunt of economic woes.
Famed heiress Patty Hearst was among those on hand. She won a prize last year with her French bulldog, but was shut out this visit.
After attending Westminster for 10 years, Amanda Giles altered her pattern this time when she brought her whippet, Brie.
The owner-handler from Woodstock, Va., stocked up her cooler at Wal-Mart, rather than filling up at a fine Manhattan restaurant. Maybe her dog was a bit hungry — she took a flying nip at Giles’ long red skirt.
"It’s having an extreme effect on our sport. A lot of people don’t want to come to shows because they can’t afford the travel and entry fees," Giles said. "And the backers, the people who support dogs, aren’t there as much anymore."
Consider the Borzois: Thirty-four were officially entered, but only 27 turned up. The crowd also was thinned. Instead of fans packed five deep around the daytime show rings, there were open seats in the front row.
William Secord could see a difference. He opened a booth at Westminster last year to showcase paintings from his William Secord Gallery, and was back this February.
Among the artwork was a circa-1870 painting of a smooth-coated fox terrier priced at $28,000. A few dog fanciers trickled in, only to look.
"It does seem a bit slower," he said. "I think people are taking more time to decide. The best is still selling. But it is taking more time."
While some top owners might spend well more than $100,000 a year to fly their dogs first class, there are lots of mom-and-pop operations and people showing up on a budget.
Chelsea Conway came to Westminster in style last year. She brought her husband, and they enjoyed the Broadway show "Mamma Mia!" and a fancy dinner.
This time, no show and a trip to the deli. Oh, and her husband stayed home in Murietta, Calif.
"It’s all changed," she said, petting her big Dogue de Bordeaux in a hotel lobby across the street from the Garden. Her dog, also known as a French mastiff, is the one new breed at Westminster.
"You have to watch your money," she said.
That goes for real dogs in the ring and hot dogs at the concession stands.
Schott, the handler from Red Hook, N.Y., thought she’d pointed to a $5.25 jumbo dog. But she got served the foot-long size at $5.75.
"It costs as much as caviar," she said.
There was an hour-long protest outside the Garden by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, with two members dressed up as Ku Klux Klan members. PETA claims the American Kennel Club’s promotion of purebred dogs is harmful to their health.
Said Frei: "We want to produce the next generation of healthy and happy dogs, not just for the show ring but for the couches at home."