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Westminster Judge Vets Ears, Tails, Testicles to Pick Best Dog

Cindy Vogels
Cindy Vogels, the Best in Show judge at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show. Vogels, publisher of Sommelier Journal, began showing dogs competitively in the late 1960s. Photographer: Vicki Holloway/Westminster Kennel Club via Bloomberg

Feb. 13 (Bloomberg) -- The fate of 2,000 pampered purebreds gathered in New York this week ultimately rests in the hands, eyes and sensibility of Cindy Vogels.

Shortly before 11 p.m. tomorrow at Madison Square Garden, Vogels is scheduled to select the best in show from seven finalists at the Westminster Kennel Club pageant. The 136th annual spectacle is billed as the most prestigious canine competition in the U.S., as well as the second-longest continuously held sporting event after the Kentucky Derby.

“I don’t think of it as power,” said handler David Fitzpatrick, as he arrived from Pennsylvania on Thursday with Palacegarden Malachy, a Pekingese ranked No. 2 in American Kennel Club competition last year. “That’s a big responsibility.”

From her home last week in a Denver, Colorado, suburb, Greenwood Village, the 60-year-old Vogels described her task as difficult.

“There is no right answer,” she said of her choice. “It will be my answer.”

Greyhounds and Terriers

The daughter of a Long Island, New York, orthodontist, she grew up with a beloved poodle. Next for the family was a soft-coated wheaten terrier, a native Irish farm dog. As the breed was rare, she was encouraged to show it competitively.

“The bug bit,” she said.

Vogels went on to breed terriers, as well as Brittanys, greyhounds and Pekingese. (Her mother, Jackie Gottlieb, is also a breeder. To avoid the perception of a conflict of interest, Vogels curtailed dog breeding when she began judging in the 1990s, she said.)

Her pack of six dogs today -- she and her husband, David, show and raise horses on their 15-acre farm -- consists of three greyhounds, two Pekingese and a Japanese Chin. Nationwide, she’s judged terriers, toy dogs and sporting breeds, which include retrievers and spaniels.

“You can be harder on the breeds you know the most about,” she said.

For the three rounds at Westminster, the job of judges is to assess how a dog stacks up to a written description of the breed’s ideal specimen in appearance, movement, temperament and physical traits, such as height and weight.

“So many of the dogs, I will have judged or seen before,” said Vogels. “We all have our likes and dislikes. The job is to be kind and objective and judge with integrity.”

Pooch Perfection

How does one decide among seven perfect and distinct specimens? “They’re not all going to be perfect,” she said. “They’re not all going to perform as well on the night.”

As finalists are culled from 2,000 entrants, Vogels will be “sequestered” for most of the two-day show. Tonight, she plans to watch a DVD with her 18-month-old granddaughter to avoid the coverage on cable television.

Once she arrives at the Garden tomorrow evening at about 10 p.m. she’ll have a few minutes to study the standards of the final seven, if necessary.

“Ours is an open-book test,” she said.

What’s it like giving those intimate exams in the ring?

“Are you asking if I have my 10 favorite sets of testicles?” Vogels asked with a laugh. “We go over every inch of the dog. You’re looking for the essence of the breed.”

Surprise Winners

It isn’t easy handicapping Westminster. Last year’s winner, a Scottish deerhound named Hickory, wasn’t in the top-10-ranked dogs prior to the show. Two years earlier, a Sussex Spaniel named Stump ambled out of retirement to win.

In 2011, the two most winning dogs were a black cocker spaniel nicknamed Beckham and the Pekingese Malachy. Both made it to the final seven at Westminster last year. The top 10 also included two standard poodles, one co-owned by Martin Sosnoff, a New York money manager.

There are about 17 standard poodles registered. Toy poodles, with a dozen this year, have had the most dramatic increase, growing 15 percent annually since 2008, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Six new breeds are making an appearance, including Xoloitzcuintlis, or Mexican hairless dogs, and Finnish Lapphunds.

Describing her cherished sport as “graying,” Vogels said she’s eager to promote it, as well as the dog-related charities with which she’s involved. Once an “old-boys sporting club,” Westminster has grown more inclusive, she said.

Outsiders still associate this world with the Christopher Guest-directed 2000 comedy “Best in Show.” Vogels said she didn’t initially find its caricatures funny.

“It strikes a little close to home,” she said. “By the time I had seen it a third time, I could laugh.”

(With assistance from Jennifer Prince. Philip Boroff is a reporter for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Philip Boroff in New York at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at

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