Photo courtesy Westminster Kennel Club.
Fri, 06/02/2023 - 11:52pm

Pressure Is a Privilege

Beth Sweigart reflects on her Westminster Best in Show assignment

As competitors make their way along a quiet hallway into the cavernous Arthur Ashe Stadium, they invariably pause in front of a wall-mounted plaque inscribed with a famous quote from Billie Jean King.

“Pressure Is a Privilege,” reads the doormat-sized plate. Just beyond it, the soaring arena awaits, its crisp blue-gray seats rising to meet the retractable roof.

That sentiment isn’t just for tennis players, of course. As the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show decamped at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, New York, for its 147th show on May 8 and 9, those raised aluminum letters inspired hundreds of selfies and reverential pats among exhibitors and judges alike.

Even the last person to walk down that hallway on Tuesday night — Best in Show judge Beth Sweigart of Bowmansville, Pennsylvania – stopped in front of the metal words and contemplated their significance.

“I thought, ‘How appropriate is that?’” she recalls. “It was so fitting. It was the way I was feeling.”

Indeed, on multiple levels, Westminster 2023 embodied those four words, which were also the title of King’s 2008 memoir. Since losing its mooring at Madison Square Garden in the aftermath of the Covid pandemic, Westminster has felt the pressure of maintaining its hard-earned status as America’s greatest dog show, even as it had to go farther afield in search of appropriate sites.

But if the success of a breeding program is in an unbroken line of dogs that manage to evoke the essence of their kennel despite their individualism, so too has Westminster succeeded in keeping the heft and tenor of the iconic show amid varying and sometimes supremely different venues.

“It had the same feeling you got in the Garden,” Sweigart says of the tennis stadium, the world’s largest, located just across the East River from Westminster’s erstwhile Manhattan digs. “It had that feeling of ‘Oh, my goodness’ in terms of presence.”

Understandably, even for an experienced fancier and judge like Sweigart, the idea of stepping onto center stage at the widely televised show made for a degree of apprehension.

“I was nervous from the day they asked me until the moment I walked in the ring,” she admits. “But once I walked in there, it was fabulous. I enjoyed every moment.”

Sweigart says she knew the Petit Basset Griffon Vendéen would be the dog to beat the minute she saw him step onto the green carpet. “His soundness was incredible, his carriage and footfall beautiful,” she says of Am GCh/Aust/Ir and UK Ch. Soletrader Buddy Holly. When told the breeds of her seven finalists before judging, she consulted the PBGV standard for the description of the scenthound’s distinguishing tail carriage. Buddy Holly met the standard’s words to perfection, she noted with satisfaction — “carried like a saber, alert and in readiness.”

British-born Buddy Holly started his American career only this January, debuting in the single-point classes at Palm Springs. He achieved his AKC championship two weeks later at the Portland shows, gaining all his majors through group placements. At six years of age, the tousled-haired hound had already made his mark on two other continents, winning the breed at Crufts in his native England and then going on to a successful career in Australia.

After a mere five months of showing and his career-capping Westminster win, Buddy Holly is now retired. “A short, glorious career — at least in this country,” muses Sweigart, who was at Crufts the year he won the breed there, but had gone to the theater that day, and so never saw him. “After Best in Show, his handler said to me, ‘This is the end. There’s nowhere to go from here.’”

Sweigart’s Reserve Best in Show winner was the almost-3-year-old Pekingese GCh. Pequest Rum Dum.

“David never disappoints with his Pekes,” she says, referring to breeder-owner-handler David Fitzpatrick, who won Best in Show at Westminster in 2021 under Pat Trotter with GChG. Pequest Wasabi and in 2012 under Cindy Vogels with GCh. Palacegarden Malachy. “I thought this one was so typey — his body was correct, his head was beautiful, and his eyes were lovely,” Sweigart says.

Most armchair judges concurred that the seven dogs sent to Sweigart for her consideration were all strong contenders. In addition to her two ultimate winners, Sweigart also had last year’s Reserve BIS winner, the French Bulldog GChP. Fox Canyon’s I Won the War at Goldshield; Australian Shepherd GChP. Northbay Xsell That’s A Wrap; English Setter GChB. Winchester’s An Apple A Day; Giant Schnauzer GCh. Hearthmore’s Wintergreen Mountain, and American Staffordshire Terrier GChP. Lbk’s Rebel and Proud Party Crasher.

Rather than the conventional ballgown, Sweigart opted for a beautifully fitted tuxedo for her big moment in the center of the ring. “I thought I was going to be controversial, but it was all quite favorable,” she says of the tailored black suit. Though her longtime partner Peter Green, who judged Best at the Garden in 2019, teased that “you’re going to look like me,” Sweigart says she was happy with her wardrobe choice, which on some levels underscores the great flexibility of expression that the sport permits its participants: While group judges Cindy Vogels and Connie Clark opted for sophisticated retro-style dresses that could have easily fit into an episode of “Mad Men,” Sweigart and Working Group judge Paula Nykiel were equally chic in black pantsuits. What all had in common was a sense of high style that befits a show of this stature.  

And as with most high-wire performances, once the pressure was on, Sweigart says she just applied herself to the work at hand, and all else faded away.

“Once I got in there,” she says of Westminster’s Best in Show ring, “I thought it was the best place to be.”



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