Winning at Westminster: A Family Tradition

Winning at Westminster: A Family Tradition

By: Kerrin Winter-Churchill  Date: 03/1/2007

Styles of hair, clothing, cars and even architecture change over time. But the dream of winning a small silver medallion engraved with the words, "Best of Breed, Westminster Kennel Club" remains constant regardless of the decade or fashion trends that come and go.

Though animal rights groups would have society believe that the pursuit of breeding and showing near-perfect specimens of purebred dogs is an antiquated, elitist sport, those who live and breathe purebred dogs know differently. Rich, poor or middle class, dedicated dog breeders know that breeding dogs that conform to the standards set forth by national breed clubs is an intellectual, artistic pursuit handed down from one generation to the next by a people not only bonded by human family but by the canine bloodlines they cultivate and endeavor to preserve.

While cynics and nay sayers aspirate on bitter words of "politics" suggesting that a Best in Show win at Westminster is a game of knowing the right people, those who understand our sport will counter with stories of a world where vision and hard work combine with exceptional quality in body, mind and spirit – the fundamental truths behind Best in Show greatness – a greatness that lasts far into future generations.

Here the old adage, "blood will tell" is well-suited, and a study of pedigrees reveals that oftentimes Best in Show quality dogs come from pedigrees of yesterday's big winners. Indeed, many of today's Best in Show dogs are the descendants of like dogs of the past. That modern breeders have been intelligent and passionate enough to preserve and cultivate bloodlines from yesteryear is a great homage to their predecessors who struggled for the same rich pageantry of breeding better dogs – decades before.

Madison Square Garden, February 13, 2007 10PM
As the house lights dim the nearly sold-out seats of Madison Square Garden fall silent. On the sport of dogs' biggest night, the seven Group winners are called to make their appearance. Perfectly put down in glorious condition these final seven are the very quintessence of dog show drama.

Now the big arena is bathed in a sea of darkness. Suddenly a booming voice announces the Akita who appears from the shadows as a spotlight dances along with him. This ring procedure is repeated six more times and every new dog comes out to spectators' cries of joy.

As "Harry" the plucky Dandie Dinmont Terrier makes his way around the ring, whistles can be heard. When the dazzling white Toy Poodle flits along with his handsome handler the crowd is hushed in awe but five minutes later, they break into throngs of cheers as a glorious Standard Poodle prances along with her tuxedoed handler.

As the cheers for this team ring louder and louder, one wonders if there will be anything left for the three dogs still to come. No worries needed, this is a dog lovers' crowd and as the dashing English Springer Spaniel makes his way into the ring the spectators swoon their applause. Next they laugh and cheer as the snappy little Hound – a Petite Basset Griffon Vendeen arrives on the scene. Finally the wire faced little fellow gives way to a workmanlike Bouvier Des Flanders whose sound, steady movement is a perfect example of what cattle drovers were striving for when they created this breed. Here is a dog that can "go all day."

Around and around the ring they move, settling down to a line-up as the houselights returned to the arena. As diplomatic judges so often like to say, "Each of these dogs could easily have won." Indeed, each of these dogs has won Best in Show awards in the past. But there can only be one big winner at Westminster and this night belongs to the English Springer Spaniel. When AKC Best in Show judge Dr. Robert A. Indeglia singles out the liver and white champion, Felicity's Diamond Jim, for the silver trophy and the red white and blue rosette the house goes mad with passion.

Springer Legacy
Bred by Teresa Patton of Felicity English Springer Spaniels, James is the culmination of almost forty years of study and dedication to the breed. A master-breeder, dog trainer and eternal student of the breed, Patton says simply of this win, "It's a dream come true." A dream indeed. When Ms. Kellie Fitzgerald piloted "James" or Ch. Felicity's Diamond Jim to his Best in Show win at Westminster, it was the sixth time the show was taken by an English Springer Spaniel and James was the fifth. It was also the second time a Springer handler won a Best in Show at Westminster with a Springer for a second time.

The Springer legacy at the Garden had its beginning with the black and white "Danny," Ch. Wakefield's Black Knight who won the Garden in 1963. He was followed in 1971 by the immortal Ch. Chinoe's Adamant James who repeated his great win by taking Best in Show at the "Garden" for a second time in 1972. Both times Adamant James was handled by Clint Harris (now an AKC judge).

Twenty-one years later in 1993, "Robert," Ch. Salilyn's Condor, was bestowed Dogdom's greatest honor and, in 2000, Robert's daughter, Am/Can Ch. Salilyn 'N Erin's Shameless, piloted by none other than Kellie Fitzgerald, took top honors at this show.

Now seven years later we have James, and while most of the press has focused on this sensational win, what marvels show dog pedigree scholars is how this great show dog is a direct descendant of both 1963's Ch. Wakefield's Black Knight and 1971 and 1972's Ch. Chinoe's Adamant James, and has blood ties to 2000's Shameless and even closer ties to 1993's Ch. Salilyn's Condor.

Obviously some excellent English Springer Spaniels are being produced in America and it is no wonder. The keepers of the English Springer flame follow the proud tradition of breeding for breed type and soundness – a tradition that the Springers' grand dame, the late Mrs. Julia Gasow, learned at the knee of those in the breed before her.

Back to the Future
Posing regally with his handler "James" is reminiscent of the other James, Ch. Chinoe's Adamant James, who went by the nickname of "DJ," which, curiously, was short for "Diamond Jim." And just like James is today, DJ was famous in his time for his perfectly symmetrical body.

"He had perfectly balanced bone length and angles which made his extended trot on the green carpeted expanse of Westminster a breathtaking sight to behold," says master breeder, Karen Prickett Miller, who lived with the dog and loved him. She adds, "DJ was true poetry in motion."

Now fast forward thirty five years and see DJ's many great-grandson wow his audience with the same floating on a cloud way of going. As all good breeders know, the beauty is in the genes. And James has it, just like DJ did, just like Danny did before him and so on. Though he retired after his big win at the Garden, James has had his share of unforgettable wins. His career is a dog breeder's dream. As the 2006 English Springer Spaniel Field Trial Association (ESSFTA) national specialty winner, with forty-six Best in Shows under his collar before the Garden including the prestigious AKC Eukanuba 2006 Invitational, the handsome liver and white specimen only ever got better.

Sitting regally with Kellie Fitzgerald as they are asked to look into dozens of cameras with popping flashes, James takes the press frenzy all in stride. Clearly the two are great friends and Fitzgerald drapes her arm around the champion's beautiful shoulders as tears pool in her eyes. "He's a beautiful dog, inside and out," says Ms. Fitzgerald.

She should know. Starting out in English Springers some twenty-five years ago, Fitzgerald has risen to the heights of the dog game, showing, breeding and learning from the mother of modern English Springers, the late Julia Gasow of Salilyn English Springer fame, whose dog "Risto," better known as Ch. Salilyn's Aristocrat (sire of Adamant James), is the watershed sire behind all the WKC Best in Show winners except for Black Knight who came before him.Risto Best in Show Everyone who has been in dogs long enough to remember Mrs. Gasow tells the story of a kind and dedicated lady whose heart burned with her archetypal vision.

Mrs. Gasow hasn't been gone from the sport for very long, so it's easy to imagine the elegant lady standing tall, just out of the limelight, smiling as the flashes pop and photographers call to Kellie and James to "Look over here."

Mrs. Gasow shared the depths of her life-long knowledge with Kellie and at the mention of her great mentor's name, Fitzgerald's eyes fill with tears. Wiping them she says, "I am sure, wherever she is, she is happy for us tonight."

And so the great mentor lives on in Kellie Fitzgerald and someday she'll pass this emblazoned torch to a new generation. In much the same way, the name "Ch. Felicity's Diamond Jim" will surely live on in the progeny that will so proudly bear his name in their family tree. After all, this is the essence of our sport. It is a family tradition for dog people and the dogs they live and breathe by.

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