As American sporting events go, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, celebrating its 136th year, is second only to the Kentucky Derby (preparing for No. 138) for longevity. Four Kentucky teens will be part of that history-soaked action this week at Madison Square Garden in New York.
The young dog enthusiasts will be competing in the Junior Showmanship competition at the two-day, all-breed show, which wraps up Tuesday.
Siblings Tanner and Sarah Congleton of Versailles; Kristin Lawless, 16, of Nicholasville; and Chloe Tilford, 14, of Louisville will be in the ring.
Like all of the 2,500 entries in the show, the teens and their canine charges qualified to compete in what is widely considered the Super Bowl of dog contests.
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To be invited to compete at Westminster, juniors must win first place in 10 events sanctioned by the American Kennel Club. It's a separate competition from the more familiar breed contest, in which the dogs are judged. In junior showmanship, the young people, ages 9 to 18, are judged on their handling skills independent of the traits of their dogs. Winners and finalists get scholarships ranging from $500 to $6,000. The junior competition's preliminary rounds are scheduled throughout Monday and Tuesday; the finals will be Tuesday night.
For several of the young Kentuckians, it's a trip they've made before.
Sarah Congleton, 18, is competing for the fifth time. She's showing two English springer spaniels: Deuce, in the junior showmanship competition, and Sedona, in the breed competition. (Because bloodlines are key in competition, all the dogs have formal names and "call names." For example, Sedona is the call name of Grand Champion Camelaird Believe It or Not. Sedona is the name she'll use in the ring.)
In some ways, it's nice to know a little about what to expect going in, but you never really get used to being in the ring at the huge Madison Square Garden, Congleton said. A freshman at Bluegrass Technical and Community College, Congleton said she might be cutting back on dog shows.
"It's been a huge part of my life," she said. But traveling every weekend takes its toll, and she hopes to turn her attention to her studies and her goal of becoming a physician's assistant.
Her brother Tanner, 17, a senior at Woodford County High School, hopes to make dog shows and breeding his career. He is showing his golden retriever Chablis in the junior showmanship competition. He already has qualified to compete as a junior handler in the 2013 Westminster dog show.
Lawless, who is home-schooled, hopes to follow a similar path. Even as a 9-year-old she was serious about competition. She said she researched her breed, the Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever, for two years before getting her show dog, Cruiser.
Lawless and the Congletons have often traveled together to competitions, sometimes sharing hotel rooms.
Lawless said "the juniors in Kentucky are very dedicated," and that can raise the overall level of competition.
This is not the cute make-believe of, say, last weekend's Puppy Bowl.
"In the ring, everybody is going to be competitive," Sarah Congleton said. But, "that doesn't go outside the ring."