Some 2,700 carefully bred and coifed dogs, across nearly 200 breeds, put their best paw forward in New York at the annual Westminster Kennel Club dog show. (Reuters)

 

In the dark forests of 19th-century Europe, man was hungry and wanted meat. Having escaped the horrors of the Second Millennium — the Dark Ages, the Crusades, the Black Death — to emerge from the Renaissance and the enlightenment with a taste for democracy and venison, our species found that hunting was no longer the privilege of the aristocracy but the passion of the masses. And, hunting game o’er hill and dale, lord and laborer alike knew they needed a best friend to facilitate their hotblooded pursuit of winged birds and many-pointed stag. But what beast — swift of foot, singleminded in its chase after even the faintest scent of prey — could best serve?

Enter the German shorthaired pointer — Europe’s premier hunting dog, as one enthusiast put it, that is “born to run … born to reign.” And the pointer, centuries after the breed was first developed, certainly reigned Tuesday night at the 140th Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden in New York, where California Journey, a.k.a. C.J., a prime specimen if there ever was one, took best in show, the contest’s top honor.

“He has that extra sparkle,” handler Valerie Nunes-Atkinson told the Associated Press. “He’s an old soul.” The AP, uncharacteristically effusive, described C.J.’s eyes as “golden” and “winning” — high praise from the wire service.


Handler Valerie Nunez Atkinson with CJ, a German Shorthaired Pointer, after they won Best in Show6. (REUTERS/Brendan McDermid)

The field at Madison Square Garden was strewn with C.J.’s worthy adversaries. More than 2,700 creatures, with comers from all 50 states and the wider world, thought they had the stuff to be, to borrow a phrase, Top Dog. There was My Sassy Girl, a borzoi from Japan. There was Charlie the Skye terrier, from Oyster Bay, N.Y. There was Play It Again Ham, a samoyed from Readington Township, N.J. — steady and inscrutable as the fluffy, cotton ball-shaped rock weathered the media frenzy.

Though winners in their respective groups — sporting group, working group, etc. — none had the right ruff compared with C.J., god among dogs.

“He oozed that pointer style,” Richard Meen, the judge with the unenviable task of crowning a king of kings at Westminster, told USA Today. “It was clear he wasn’t a sight hound. He exhibited all the qualities you want in a pointer. And the other thing is that he was light and fluid on his feet. Those two qualities were very important to me.”

“He was born this way,” Nunes-Atkinson said after C.J.’s triumph. “We always say that from the moment C.J. was very young, when he walked across the room, we thought: ‘Oh, boy. We have a special one.’ ”

Not all of the vanquished went gently into that good night. A 4-year-old German shepherd named Rumor — ranked as No. 1 show dog in the country and was the second place winner at Westminster last year — was a clear crowd favorite, earning thunderous applause when she won the herding group.

“Her heart,” owner Pamela Buckle said when asked by WKYC what she loves most about Rumor. “The love and affection she shows me. I just think she’s beautiful.”

After Rumor’s loss to C.J., some couldn’t help but feeling “robbed” — and some turned to social media to foment revolution.

But this was loose talk. The losers, honored and honorable even in defeat, could do little but nobly quit the field — particularly on the solemn occasion of longtime Westminster co-host David Frei’s retirement from the event.

“I always heard people tell me this was on their bucket list, that it’s a thrill to meet me,” Frei told the New York Times. “But now these people are saying they’re sorry it’s my last year. It’s a humbling sort of response.”

Though Frei won’t be providing commentary at Westminster in 2017, many of these canines will be back. C.J. may be the current hot dog but, in dogs as well as baseball, glory is fleeting, and there’s always next year.

“He just has that something extra special,” Nunes-Atkinson told NJ.com. “He’s a wonderful German shorthaired pointer, but he has major ‘it’ factor, too.”