How To Win the Westminster Dog Show: Get a Big-Money Backer

Pets and people.
Feb. 10 2012 7:15 AM

How To Win the Westminster Dog Show

Step 1: Find a poodle. Step 2: Get a big-money backer.

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Kaz Hosaka with Vikki, the top toy poodle of all-time. Not pictured: Vikki’s secret weapon, her backer Ron Scott.

TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

For his new book, Show Dog: The Charmed Life and Trying Times of a Near-Perfect Purebred, Josh Dean spent more than a year following Jack, a champion Australian Shepherd. What follows is an excerpt from the book, adapted from a chapter on the world of show-dog backers. Also see our Magnum Photos gallery on dog shows.

If you spend a few weekends attending dog shows, you’ll pick up some surprising kibbles of knowledge along the way. You’ll learn, for instance, that any white dog is likely to be covered in powdered chalk. Or that certain breeds—bulldogs, for one—are incapable of reproducing without human intervention. You’ll also discover that the exorbitant expenses required to put a successful show dog on the road aren’t paid by the dogs’ owners. Yes, all the top dogs have backers, sometimes several of them.

If show-dog investors were our solar system, Ron Scott would be one of the larger planets—at least Saturn, if not Jupiter. Scott will tell you that the white hot sun that scorches all earth is Victor Malzoni, a Sao Paolo-based construction magnate who backs six or seven dogs a year in the United States, plus handfuls more in Europe and Brazil. “He’s a very wealthy man whose passion happens to be dogs,” Scott told me, while finishing up breakfast at his home in Pennsylvania. “He has a Gulfstream big enough to fly back and forth from Sao Paolo to New York City.”

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Scott, a retired entrepreneur—he sold his forklift company in 2007—lives a bit more modestly than Malzoni but is no less passionate about dogs. The 68-year-old, who backs dogs along with his “partner in all things,” former professional handler Debbie Burke, is the former chairman of the Harrisburg Dog Show and a 30-plus-year participant in shows. His greatest legacy, though, is his partnership with Japanese poodle maestro Kaz Hosaka. For the past 15 years, Scott has served as the backer to Hosaka’s top dog—or dogs—paying not only handling and travel fees but also for the hundreds of pages of advertisements that promote them.

Competition in poodles is especially fierce. “There is nothing that takes more work or money than poodles,” famed former handler Pat Hastings told me. “The average owner simply cannot compete against professionals when it comes to scissoring and coat care. People have real lives.” I don’t know if this is the main reason the breed has become a magnet for wealthy backers, or if poodles just have cachet. Probably, both things are true. As is this: Poodles win more dog shows than any other breed. That’s what attracted Ron Scott.

Scott’s background was in Yorkshire Terriers, a breed he fell into through his ex-wife. One dog turned into a breeding and showing hobby that very quickly consumed both of them. Scott came to love the competition, and especially winning, but soon winning breed ribbons wasn’t enough. He wanted Groups, and then Bests in Show. And he found that it was very difficult to win Best in Show with Yorkshire Terriers.

If Scott wanted to compete for titles, the choice seemed rather obvious. “Poodles do very well,” he explained. “There are probably more Bests in Show in one weekend by poodles than all the Flat-Coated Retrievers would have in an entire year. And you could say that about a lot of breeds. It’s just the way it is.”

Scott didn’t tiptoe into the poodle waters—he cannon-balled. In the late 1990s, he threw his money behind a new arrival from Japan: a toy poodle named Spirit, handled by the master Kaz Hosaka. “I loved his ability to transform a dog into something so beautiful and train it so well,” Scott says. “I had the best of all possible worlds—a really good dog and a person to make that dog the best it could be.” Spirit didn’t disappoint. He won 25 Bests in Show as well as Best of Variety at the 1998 and 1999 National Poodle Specialty shows.

Spirit’s success got Scott hooked on poodles, leading him to comb the world for the absolute best stock. Scott won Westminster, in 2002, with a Miniature Poodle named Spice Girl that Hosaka bred. Their standard poodle Justin was the No. 1 non-sporting dog in America in 2005, and then the two men discovered Vikki, “this little Toy Poodle bitch at Smash Kennels in Japan.” Vikki went on to be the No. 1 dog in America, all-breed, in 2007, and then the top toy poodle of all-time, with 108 Bests in Show. “She was just an extraordinary little animal to watch,” Scott says.

Scott had found his poodle source. “Our deal is simple,” he explains. The proprietors of Smash Kennels, a mother-son team in Fuji City, Japan, offer Scott first pick of every litter and send the dogs off to America to be campaigned by Hosaka. Scott pays nothing for a dog, but picks up all the expenses, and then returns it home to be bred once retired. By charging nothing for a dog that comes back to them a year or two later, the breeders have, in essence, shorted the dog like a stock. And while Scott pays nothing for the dog, he pays plenty to campaign it. This arrangement, he says, is ideal. “I get to pick the best dogs, show them, and send them back to be reintroduced to the breeding program, where hopefully a better one comes out. We’ve been doing that for 10 years.”