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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Underdog Wins! (and an interview with his owners)

When Rufus the "colored'' bull terrier won Best in Show last night at Madison Square Garden, the wild cheering from the stands could have rivalled any last-second-win euphoria at a Knicks game.

Rufus - Ch. Rocky Top's Sundance Kid - was clearly one of the underdogs, along with the Scottish deer hound, the Rottweiler, and the pug, though the sheer silliness of pugs - and I mean that in the most amused way - clearly won over much of the crowd.

But it really seemed like a dead heat among the Golden retriever, the Old English sheepdog and the Dalmatian. Every time one of those three trotted around the show ring, fans screamed loud enough to shake Walt Frazier's, Willis Reed's and Bill Bradley's jerseys in the rafters.

"Pick the Golden!'' they shrieked. "Pick the pug!''

But judge James G. Reynolds of Ottowa, Canada, had his own ideas, and when he saw Rufus, who's nearly 6, he saw perfection.

The moment of maximum suspense in the Best in Show finale came when the judge lined up the six dogs that had won Best of Group for one final time (after several trips around the ring and a thorough going-over from teeth to tail). The Garden was hushed. He looked up and down the line of dogs then stepped to the judging table and wrote something down.

Stewards then came forward with three silver trophies. Reynolds picked up the winner's purple and gold ribbon. They walked slowly to the line of dogs. Nobody breathed. Reynolds took a couple of steps toward Rufus and the whole place erupted in screaming and applause.

In the stands, Rufus's owner, Tom Bishop of Holmdel, N.J., literally fell over himself, overcome with emotion. He's a big, beefy guy and was crying like a baby.

A couple of minutes later, I ran into Nancy Isakson from Fort Lauderdale, the owner of Cali, the Bests of Opposite Sex bulldog. She thought Rufus was a great pick.

"That dog was like so on, it was amazing!'' she told me. "He totally deserved it. Look at him wagging his tail out there; he's just so happy! He showed like a million bucks. He was perfect. Begging for it.''

A churning scrum of photographers had surrounded Rufus and his handler, Kathryn Kirk, by then, like it was Oscar night on the red carpet. Rufus had a huge grin on his long, flat face and wasn't at all rattled by the pandemonium around him.

"That's our dog! Tom Bishop sobbed, as friends threw themslves into his arms.

Tom is a 50-year-old chemical-plant maintenace superintendent: "I'm a blue-collar worker and Rufus is a blue-collar dog," he told me.

His wife, Barbara, 55, is a stay-at-home grandma (two sons, four grandkids, four bull terriers), who's been showing dogs since the 1970s, Komondoroks (which look like enornous mops) and Lhasa apsos (which look like plush toys).

"When they passed on, I said I wanted a man's dogs, and I love bull terriers. We've been in bull terriers since '84, and this is our first real show dog.''

This was Rufus's fifth time at Westminster, Tom said, and had won his group on Monday.

Tom was "ecstatic. Over the moon. I didn't think anything could get better than that with the competition that was there. Today is the candle...It's like having Lance Armstrong for your son.''

Then he strated crying again.

Rufus - who was due on Martha Stewart's tv show Wednesday, along with all three morning shows - now retires to a life of leisure, though he'll go to shows as a spectator.

"He sleeps on our bed," said Tom.

Barbara calls Rufus, who weighs 75 pounds, a "couch potato. He lays around. Then when he feels like playing, he'll grab something and run around. He does what we call the hucklebuck: he'll get a burst of energy and run around. It's like, 'You will play NOW!''

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