The flavor of the year at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show: Wasabi.
A Pekingese named Wasabi won best in show Sunday night, notching a fifth-ever win for the unmistakable toy breed. A whippet named Bourbon repeated as runner-up.
Waddling through a small-but-mighty turn in the ring, Wasabi nabbed U.S. dogdom’s most prestigious prize after winning the big American Kennel Club National Championship in 2019.
“He has showmanship. He fits the breed standard. He has that little extra something, that sparkle, that sets a dog apart,” said Wasabi’s handler, breeder and co-owner, David Fitzpatrick. Show judge Patricia Trotter said simply: “What's not to like about this dog? ... He stood there as though he was a lion."
Fitzpatrick, of East Berlin, Pennsylvania, guided the Peke’s grandfather Malachy to the Westminster title in 2012. Still, he said, “I just don't always think lightning is going to strike twice.”
How will Wasabi celebrate?
“He can have a filet mignon. And I’ll have Champagne,” Fitzpatrick said with a laugh.
The 3-year-old Pekingese, meanwhile, was “pretty nonchalant about the whole thing,” his handler said. Indeed, Wasabi laid down on the dais, occasionally looking up as if to see what the fuss was all about, as Fitzpatrick spoke before a cluster of reporters and cameras.
It was a poignant win that came after one of his co-owners, archaeologist Iris Love, died last year of COVID-19. Besides Fitzpatrick, the dog is also co-owned by Sandra Middlebrooks and Peggy Steinman.
Wasabi — the name derives from his mother, Sushi — came out on top of a finalist pack that also included Mathew the French bulldog, Connor the old English sheepdog, Jade the German shorthaired pointer, Striker the Samoyed, and a West Highland white terrier named Boy. Altogether, 2,500 champion dogs entered the show.
It underwent big changes this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, moving out of New York City for the first time since the show's 1877 founding. This year’s show was held outdoors at an estate in suburban Tarrytown, about 25 miles north of where the top ribbon is usually presented at Madison Square Garden, and it happened in June instead of February.
In a sign of the pandemic times, some handlers wore masks — though vaccinated people were allowed to go without — and the show was closed to the public.
“It's a miracle that they even had this show,” Fitzpatrick said.
Striker went into the show as the top-ranked U.S. dog, with more than 40 best in show wins since January 2020. And Bourbon had also won the AKC National Championship.
The show was bittersweet for Jade’s handler and co-owner, Valerie Nunes-Atkinson. She guided Jade’s father, CJ, to a 2016 Westminster best in show win — and lost him last September, when the 7-year-old died unexpectedly of a fungal infection.
“The good part about it is: He’s left an incredible legacy,” said Nunes-Atkinson, of Temecula, California. She said Jade “had my heart” from birth.
Boy had come a long way to Westminster — all the way from Thailand, where one of his owners was watching from Bangkok, according to handler Rebecca Cross.
“He always makes us laugh,” said Cross, of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
For many dog owners, just making it to Westminster is a thrill — even for baseball’s all-time home run leader, Barry Bonds, who was cheering on a miniature schnauzer he owns with sister Cheryl Dugan.
The dog, Rocky, didn’t win his breed, but the slugger said he was proud of Rocky simply for qualifying for the champions-only show.
“We won because we got here. That’s all that matters,” Bonds told Fox Sports. “I’ve been to a lot of playoffs, and I’ve been to the World Series, and I’ve never won. But for 22 years, I kept trying.”
The 56-year-old Bonds holds baseball’s career home run record with 762, though his feat was clouded by allegations of steroid use — he denied knowingly taking them.
While semifinal and final rounds were held in a climate-controlled tent, earlier parts of the competition unfolded on the grass at an estate called Lyndhurst.
Douglas Tighe, who handled a Brittany named Pennie second place in the sporting group, says he just goes with it if his dogs get distracted by birds and other attractions in the great outdoors.
“Let them have fun,” said Tighe, of Hope, New Jersey. “That’s what it’s all about.”
That’s what it’s about to Kole Brown, too. At age 9, he showed a bull terrier named Riley on Sunday alongside his parents, Kurtis Brown and U.S. Air Force Capt. Samantha Brown, and some of the family’s other bull terriers.
“I have a lot of fun with this sport,” said Kole, of San Antonio, Texas. “Every single time I go into the ring, I have a smile on my face.”
Associated Press writer Ben Walker contributed to this report from New York.