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TARRYTOWN, N.Y. — Wasabi could be the flavor of the year at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show. Or it might have a taste for Bourbon.

Dogdom heavyweights Bourbon the whippet and Wasabi the Pekingese are among finalists for Sunday’s best in show title, and they have plenty of competition: a French bulldog named Mathew, an old English Sheepdog called Connor and three more finalists not yet chosen.

Both Wasabi and Bourbon have won another big show, the American Kennel Club National Championship, and Bourbon was Westminster’s runner-up last year. Meanwhile, Bourbon jockeys for bragging rights with Mathew on a daily basis — the two dogs live together, since their handlers are married to each other. Wasabi is a grandson of a Westminster winner, Connor the son of a runner-up.

They’ll face off against the top working dog (a group with big and often protective breeds), sporting dog (such as retrievers and spaniels) and terrier (the spunky group with more Westminster wins than any other). The winners of those three groups get chosen Sunday evening, and then all seven finalists go back into the ring to vie for best in show.

“It’s always exciting every time, and you’re always hopeful,” said Wasabi’s handler and breeder, David Fitzpatrick, who guided the Peke’s grandfather Malachy to the Westminster title in 2012. “It’s an honor to be at Westminster.”

That’s true 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.

Bonds was the latest in a line of baseball luminaries to enter dogs at Westminster, including Lou Gehrig, with a German shepherd, and Mike Mussina, with an Irish setter.

Olga Contant made a fist-pumping leap into the air Sunday afternoon as a judge chose Hugo — a bullmastiff she bred, owns and handled — as best of his breed, giving him a shot at the working group title.

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“It’s a pinnacle show for anybody,” and all the more so for the relatively few owners who show their own dogs instead of entrusting them to professional handlers, said Contant, of Los Gatos, California.

The 149-pound Hugo might look imposing, but he’s “the sweetest dog in the world.... He captures the heart of everybody who comes around,” she said. “He is the best presentation of the breed, where you can keep him as a family pet, but also, he’ll protect you.”

For Douglas Tighe, his turn in the sporting group ring with a Brittany named Pennie will pay tribute to a family tradition. His parents began breeding Brittanys 55 years ago.

Pennie shone in the breed competition in an unusual setting for Westminster — outdoors. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the show was moved from Manhattan for the first time in its over 140 years so it could be held outside at the Lyndhurst estate in Tarrytown, New York. 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.

Pennie stayed focused, but Tighe says he just goes with it if his dogs get distracted by the birds they were bred to hunt.

“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.

The entertaining breed is strong and known for being stubborn, and the biggest ones don’t weigh much less than Kole himself. But he wouldn’t have it any other way: “I was born into this breed, and I’m staying in this breed,” he declares.

“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.

Jim Therrien writes for Vermont News and Media, including the Bennington Banner, Manchester Journal and Brattleboro Reformer. Email jtherrien@benningtonbanner.com


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