America's premier pooches packed the Baltimore Arena yesterday for what the organizers called the richest dog show in history, with 325 champions competing for a record $50,000 in prizes.
The top dog -- chosen after a day of competition among scores of primped, primed and pampered pets -- was a Lakeland terrier named Black Watch Sophie Tucker owned in part by comedian Bill Cosby. It won a total of $12,200.
For some serious dog lovers, the American Kennel Club's one-time event, scheduled for broadcast by CBS on April 26, seemed like the Rose Bowl, Kentucky Derby and the Final Four all rolled into one.
"Cream of the cream"
"I don't think you'll see this level of competition anywhere, it' the cream of the cream" said Mark Thelfall, head of the Professional Handlers' Association, which represents 270 people who make a living grooming and exhibiting animals.
Entries were by invitation only, and only the 50 biggest-name canines in seven groups were asked to R.S.V.P.
Those groups are hounds, terriers, toy dogs, herding dogs, working dogs such as boxers and Doberman Pinschers, sporting dogs such as spaniels and retrievers and non-sporting dogs such as bulldogs and poodles.
Anne Clark of New York and Centreville, a self-confessed "dog addict" who served as one of 21 judges yesterday, surveyed the stellar field and declared: "I think it's very handsome, it's got the feel and the ambience of an important show."
A tall woman with a deep voice and steady gaze, Mrs. Clark is a one-time championship breeder whose dogs have won top honors three times at the Westminster Kennel Club show in New York, the dog world's most prestigious annual event.
"Welcome to our madness," she said with a smile.
The celebrity canines who showed up yesterday included Registry's Lonesome Dove, a wire hair fox terrier, and Brunswig's Cryptonite, a Doberman Pinscher from New York that an AKC official said was one of the top winning dogs in history.
In yesterday's competition, nattily-dressed handlers ran around roped off sections of fake turf, towing their animals on short leashes.
Every few minutes, the dogs were rewarded for their efforts with a bite-sized piece of dried liver.
The dogs were judged on how closely they matched the ideal size, shape and coloring for their breed, along with how well they carried out the tasks their breed was intended to perform.
One show official said the animals' scores were also subtly affected by their attitudes, even their "charisma."
Owners, friends and others standing on the sidelines applauded politely.
Stern judges gave sharp orders, while an announcer calmly recited the names of winners.
Some less athletic handlers began to sweat as they jogged alongside the competitors.
Owners did some sweating, too.
Howard C. Dees, 52, the owner of a California meatpacking plant, popped an antacid in his mouth as he watched his St. Bernard, Subiras Claim to Fame or "Charlie," in his first round of competition.
Charlie's claim to fame is that he appeared on "Hollywood Squares" as a puppy and has a bit part in the new movie "Beethoven," which features his brother in the title role.
The 175-pound Charlie, named best in his breed in 1991 nationwide, found the competition too stiff and lost in the opening round.
The show included representatives of such exotic breeds as the Komondor, a large dog covered with ropes of hair more than a foot long.
Steve Lawrence, a 41-year-old clinical psychologist from Somers, Conn., who owns a Komondor, recalled how he got interested in showing animals. "I had a puppy and said, 'Let's go to the dog show,' " he said. "And we lost. That's the worst thing that can happen, because then of course you have to keep coming back until you win."
In an echoing concrete hallway beneath the seats, handlers grimly sprayed, shampooed, perfumed, clipped, snipped and blow-dried the dogs.
Some owners said their animals were worth from $10,000 to $20,000, though none seemed to be for sale.
A few canines woofed above the human chatter, but mostly they stood and stared, with a saintlike patience that betrayed no annoyance.
Jeri Russel El-Dissi, 32, a handler who also sells dog supplies in Milwaukee, brushed and patted Storm Kloud's Keep the Win.
She said the dog, owned by her mother, was named the top Alaskan Malamute in the country last year.
He thinks he's wonderful, and that's what makes him a good show dog. If he was a person, he'd be James Dean."
Black Watch Sophie Tucker won its owners -- Mr. Cosby of New York and Jean L. Heath and Renate Moore of California -- $10,000 as the AKC National Invitational Dog Champion, as well as $200 as winner of its heat and $2,000 as best of the terrier group.
First runner-up was a Bouvier des Flandres, Galbraith's Ironeyes, winner in the herding group, owned by Mr. and Mrs. Nathan J. Reese of Los Angeles; and second runner-up was a beagle (under 13 inches), Lanbur Miss Fleetwood, best of the hound group, owned by Eddie Dzuik and Jeffrey Slatkin of Chantilly, Va.
Other winners were a golden retriever, Asterling's Wild Blue Yonder, owned by Mary Burke of Glendale, Wis.; in the sporting group; a great Pyrenees, Rivergroves Excuse My Dust, owned by Jean A. Boyd of Brookeville, Md., in the working group; a standard poodle, Dawin Banner Waver, owned by Linda C. Dawick of Toronto, Ont., in the non-sporting group; and a Chinese crested, Razzmatazzmanian Stripper, owned by Mary Dee Lindemaier of Portland, Ore., in the toy group.
The AKC staged the show so it could air public service commercials urging the spaying and neutering of pets and responsible dog ownership in general.