It is the Super Bowl of the dog world, the canine Kentucky Derby, and Chase Harpole, 17, is ready for it: the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.
He's banking that he and his pup, Shugga Daddy — a spotlight-loving pug with a big personality in a squat, wrinkly package — will win the show's junior handling competition.
Chase will be one of three junior handlers from Kentucky invited to participate in the show. Shugga Daddy — official name: CH WooWoo It's a Derby Shugga Daddy — is one of 34 dogs from the Bluegrass State heading to New York for the competition Monday and Tuesday.
"It's the big time," said his mother, Kim Harpole. "I get goose bumps talking about it."
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Chase, a junior at Scott County High School, came to his love of dogs naturally enough. His older brother, Clifford, showed Bernese mountain dogs at Westminster. The family's home in Scott County also is the abode of three other pugs — Opal, Ruby and Diesel — and a Borzoi named Ragtop.
"We are a dog-show family," Kim said.
Chase initially started showing Ragtop, but it turns out the beautiful Borzoi was not meant for the ring: It caused him too much stress.
Thus the pugs came into the ring. It's hard to imagine Shugga Daddy's bundle of snuffling energy being tamed for the ring. But Chase, who happily calls himself "Pug Boy," has such a connection with Shugga that the energized animal is transformed once he gets on a leash.
But, really, how hard could handling be? You're just walking a dog around a ring, right?
"Oh my, no," said Laurin Howard, who coaches Chase on dog handling. "When they are in the ring, every single move they make is judged: ... where they put their feet, where they hold their hand, the angle of their chin." From beginning to end, a handling competition can require the dog and handler to be on their best behavior for hours.
The trip has been a year in the making. Chase decided last year that he wanted to make the Westminster competition. To earn an invitation, he won 10 shows around the country. He will compete in the junior handler division; Shugga also qualified for, but won't compete in, the breed competition, which is more familiar to millions of television viewers.
The handler competition is not televised, but the winner is featured on the breed competition's live telecast.
Final preparation for the big show has gone on for weeks. Shugga gets a daily walk, and to prevent shedding and keep his coat shiny, he is washed with a special mixture of Listerine mouthwash and water. (Bonus: The dog also smells nice and fresh, Chase said.) Shugga also is being groomed often with a special porcupine-quill brush and is eating a diet designed to build muscles. His nails are tended daily with a Dremel rotary tool.
Howard said that in the last two weeks before Westminster, she is encouraging Chase to interact with the dog a little less than normal, so Shugga will be primed to please his owner and perform at his best when show time comes around.
Howard also said that she has instructed Chase to practice his breathing techniques and keep a positive focus.
"The biggest thing for Chase is closing out the outside world," she said. "He has to really go get centered. It has to be just him and the dog, and those thousands and thousands of people have to disappear."
Chatting while Shugga squirmed happily in his lap, Chase said he is optimistic about his chances but knows the dog-show world is unpredictable. He said you can be in first place at a show one day, and the next day at the same show, you won't even get a ribbon.
"It's what one judge thinks about you on any given day," said Chase, who hopes to go to college to study accounting and eventually breed pugs on the side.
Win or lose, Chase said, this trip to New York certainly gives him something interesting to write about on his college applications.