When Malachy the Pekingese waddled his way to "Best in Show" at the 2012 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show Tuesday night, he earned a slew of prizes. Among them: instant fame, appearances on the Today Show, The View, Fox and Friends, and others; the coveted silver bowl (in which, according to photos, he’s already taken a nap), a ribbon bigger than he is, and thousands of dollars in stud fees for his proud owners, including handler David Fitzpatrick. He’ll eat a steak dinner at Sardi’s, tour the Empire State Building, and ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange on Thursday morning.
What he won’t get, however, is a nickel of prize money. And whatever Malachy (full name: Palacegarden Malachy) will earn in breeding fees and sponsorships as a result of his Westminster victory, it will pale in comparison to the money it took to get the little dog to the big show.
The TV share for the Westminster show has grown considerably over the past few years. Last year, the broadcast, shown over two days on the CNBC and USA networks, netted 3.5 million viewers – a 56 percent increase over 2010 and the show’s biggest audience in five years, according to the Westminster Kennel Club website. The second day of the event, when the Best in Show winner is crowned, routinely fills Madison Square Garden to near-capacity. The dogs and their handlers, though, are compensated with little more than adulation and the satisfaction of victory – like college football players.
To get an invitation to Westminster, 4-year-old Malachy had to compete in hundreds of shows across the country, racking up 115 Best in Show wins over his career. Along the way, he probably also racked up travel bills, handler fees, groomer services, entry, fees, and promotion that run into the six figures.
That's right, hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs with no hope of recouping it. And yes, part of the money goes toward promotion: The most elite dogs competing in AKC shows have their own ad campaigns, with owners and kennels buying ad space in AKC and purebred dog trade publications, including “Dog News” and “The Canine Chronicle.”
The ads list a dog’s pedigree and show history, as well as personality traits and a personal bio. A recent “Dog News” cover ad, for the Puli breed “Cordmaker Rumpus Bumpus,” (nicknamed “Ziggy,”) opens like a glowing magazine profile of a celebrity:
“There is an old sports adage that says no matter how hard it is to play the game, your goal should always be to finish strong. However, in Ziggy’s case finishing strong was just the beginning of something great.”
In a sport (or hobby, pageant, whatever you want to call it) as subjective as confirmation dog shows, a reputation can go a long way with judges, and owners are willing to pay dearly for it. In a 2010 New York Times article, Kathy Kirk, the handler of 2006 Westminster Best in Show champion, Rufus, estimated that the colored bull terrier’s three-year championship run cost $700,000 in all. Malachy has been doing this for a few years – he made it to the Best in Show ring at Westminster in 2011 as well, but lost to Hickory, a Scottish Deerhound.
Furthermore, there is very little money to be had in sponsorships for these dogs. 2008 Best in Show winner Uno the beagle was featured in a full page USA Today ad for Purina, for which his owners went uncompensated, according to the Times article.
As a result of the high price tag of these shows, most of the top dogs in the show circuit are basically incorporated, owned by several people or entities. Malachy, for instance, belongs to three people: Dr. Iris Love, a New York-based archaeologist; Sandra Middlebrooks of Mobile, Ala.; and Fitzpatrick, his handler. They aren’t in it for the money, which is a good thing – dog shows may be the only widely televised sport left where the competition is its own reward.