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'Impeccable' handler joins rare set

©Associated Press
February 12, 2003

NEW YORK -- The story goes that Hiram Stewart was so excited to break into the show world that, as a 12-year-old, he put a decidedly unshowy rope around a dog's neck to enter his first event.

"I've been doing this 33 years," the respected handler says. "There's nothing I'd rather do."

He's really good at it, too. He proved that Monday night when he guided his Pekingese to win the toy group at the prestigious Westminster Kennel Club event, and into a spot in Tuesday night's best-in-show finals.

Something else was evident to the thousands of fans watching at Madison Square Garden and the millions viewing on television -- Stewart was one of the very few African-Americans to reach that prized spot on the green carpet at America's biggest dog show.

It had been so long since a black handler had made it into the best-in-show ring, in fact, that it was hard for people to remember precisely when it had last happened.

USA Network announcer David Frei, prominent in the show world, believed Eugene Blake was the last, in 1973, when his Afghan hound almost became top dog.

Blake was among the first people to congratulate Stewart backstage after Monday night's win.

Stewart played down that part of his victory, preferring to put the emphasis on his dog, a 21/2-year-old champion named Yakee Leaving Me BreathlessAtFranshaw.

Still, the significance was not lost on him.

"Maybe this will raise awareness of our sport among people of color," Stewart said. "It might give people of color something to aspire to."

Show chairman Tom Bradley echoed that sentiment.

"I think it's fabulous," he said. "But we don't really think in those terms. Everybody's equal in the ring."

That's how the soft-spoken Stewart prefers to see it.

"I have a lot of friends in the business. We're like a big family. We're very supportive of each other."

Stewart received hearty congratulations in the lobby of the Hotel Pennsylvania, right across Seventh Avenue from the Garden, when he returned late Monday night after his victory.

"I always dreamed about this moment in my career, but you never know if it's going to come," he said.

It wasn't a surprise, though. Frei described Stewart's handling as "impeccable."

Winning the best-in-show title, however, was going to prove a tough test. Stewart's dog, commonly called Les, was about to face a heavily favored Kerry blue terrier called Mick.

Mick had already won 112 lifetime best-in-show titles, and the Westminster honor was the only major one he was missing. The 61/2-year-old terrier was trying to complete a triple crown, of sorts -- he won the world's most famous show, Crufts, in England in 2000 and took the huge AKC/Eukanuba National Invitational Championship in Orlando in December.

Also expected to be among the final seven was a German shepherd called Dallas, who has 103 best-in-show titles in his career.

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