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.”

You can count on a top dog from Ron Scott every year, as dependable as the tides. But here’s the $100,000—actually, more like $800,000—question: What’s in this for Ron Scott?

I had a theory that people backed dogs for the same reason they owned racehorses—for the luster this association provides. Scott says that’s not the case. And he would know. He also owns racehorses. “Racehorses are much less personal, for one thing,” he said, and I think he means that you can’t cuddle up on the couch with a Thoroughbred. “The second thing is, racehorses make money. You do not make money by showing dogs. It’s nothing about making money. It’s all about spending money. You do it for other reasons.”

The most important reason for Ron Scott is that he loves the dogs. He and Debbie don’t have a pet anymore—their last house dog, a Lhasa Apso, passed away in 2009—and yet 25 to 30 weekends a year they travel by RV to visit Hosaka and the poodles at show grounds. “We carry them and pet them and play with them,” he said. So, there’s the cuddle factor.

There’s also the thrill of competition, and the addiction that comes with success. “My goal is pretty high every year,” he says. “My goal is to have the No. 1 poodle in the variety that I show”— whether that’s standard, miniature, or toy.

And to accomplish that goal, he spends a lot of money.

All told, Scott says the range of campaigning a dog over a year varies: “You’re dealing with $100,000 to half a million.” Some people, of course, campaign multiple dogs.

And even then, you don’t know.

“People have spent millions and millions to win the Garden and have never won. Lots of people,” Scott said. “The stars have to align. The year we had Vikki we won 69 Bests in Show but the judge we had was going to put the beagle up, and he did.” That beagle was Uno, the 2008 champion who is probably the most famous Westminster winner in history. So in retrospect there’s little shame in that loss. The year they did win, with Spice Girl, “that was the year the gods lined up well.” A Kerry blue terrier named Mick was “by far the No. 1 dog, almost unbeatable. And we beat him that day.” For Scott, that was the ultimate rush. “It’s all about winning,” he says. “Most people who show dogs or have racehorses or play golf or do whatever they do in sports, they do it to win.”

Once you have a conversation with Ron Scott, you start to wonder if a regular person, with a great dog, could ever have a chance at competing for show wins. Hastings, the handler and trainer who knows as much about dog shows as any human, could recall just a few recent dogs that did well despite lacking a wealthy backer. She remembered a Yorkie, owned by a family that wasn’t rich, and shown by their daughter, that won Westminster.

I looked it up. That was in 1978, when Higgins became the first and still only Yorkie to win at Madison Square Garden. Handled by Marlene Lutovsky, Higgins’s care was indeed a family affair. Marlene’s mother Barbara reported that she was the one who got up every morning at 5 a.m. “to clean his teeth, brush and oil his coat, change the wrappers and give him clean booties.”

If you have someone like Ron Scott behind you, it means that you don’t have to rise before dawn, let alone brush your dog’s teeth. But more important than that, having a backer allows potential champions to be trained by the best professional handlers and to be advertised in all the major show dog magazines—week in and week out, for however long it takes.

I asked Scott if he thought it was possible to win without having someone like him pay the bills. He thought about it for a second. His reply: “It would be very difficult.”

Adapted from Show Dog: The Charmed Life and Trying Times of a Near-Perfect Purebred, by Josh Dean, published by It Books/HarperCollins.