February 28, 2012 4:16:00 PM
While some 12-year-olds are texting back and forth to find out what their friends will be wearing to the movies, Mary Lee is planning her working wardrobe for Madison Square Garden.
On Feb. 13-14, the new Columbus resident will be one the youngest dog handlers on the famous green-carpet of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York City.
Most pre-teens would be overwhelmed at the prospect, but Mary hopes to take it in stride. It will be her third time to compete in America's second-longest, continuously-held sporting event, second to the Kentucky Derby.
Only the top five dogs in each American Kennel Club-recognized breed are invited to Westminster, which originated in 1877. Any remaining slots are filled by selective lottery. Mary has earned the distinction of being the only invited junior from Mississippi at the 2012 show. She'll compete in Junior Showmanship and in breed competition, where most handlers will be adults, many of them paid professionals.
Mary moved to Columbus from Olive Branch in December, without hiccups in her busy show schedule. (The Lees are no strangers to the Golden Triangle, having strong family ties here. Dr. Sarah Lee, Mary's mother, recently joined Mississippi State's faculty as director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. Mary's father, David Lee, is an attorney.)
The youth comes by her love of dogs naturally, following in the footsteps of her mom, who used to compete. Now, showing is usually a mother-daughter affair.
"I really enjoy the time I'm able to spend with Mary traveling to shows, and all the great friends we meet across the country," Sarah said.
An AKC-sanctioned Golden Triangle Kennel Club competition at Starkville's Mississippi Horse Park Jan. 14-15 was like old-home week. Mary got to meet up with dog-show-circuit friends, including some from Olive Branch.
She visited "backstage" with two of her favorite four-legged buddies , Zoe and Bruce. These are the two canine champions she will show at Westminster.
Bruce -- Grand Champion Sugarok Born in the USA -- is a dark, hardy Finnish Lapphund owned by Linda Marden of Millington, Tenn.
Zoe -- Grand Champion Szumeria's Lucky Charm -- is a large, white, double-coated Kuvasz co-owned by Gene Hayes and his wife, Kathy Knapp, of Germantown, Tenn., Mary, Lynn Brady and Connie Townsend.
The atmosphere in the close-quartered grooming area is genial. Marden, Hayes, Mary and her mother make sure the dogs are pristine, all while keeping one ear tuned to the public address system.
Zoe stood calmly on a grooming table, while her coarse coat got a final fluff.
"In their native Hungary, they put these dogs in the pasture 24/7, 365 days," said Hayes, spraying the fur lightly with water to give it body. "Their coat is built to withstand the weather."
"The Kuvasz breed is known for its protective nature against strangers -- but Zoe never meets a stranger," smiled Mary, a seventh-grader at Starkville Academy. "She loves boys," Gene said of the dog, as another Kuvasz, Jazzman, stopped by for a visit, accompanied by his owner. The two white dogs touched noses and wagged tails, greeting each other while their humans swapped news.
Nearby, the gleaming, long-haired Bruce sat quietly next to Marden, waiting for his cue to the ring. Marden is a 40-year veteran of the dog breeding and show world. Lappies, as they're often called, are a relatively new breed in the U.S. industry. They were officially added to the AKC registry in June 2011. Bruce was the top winning Finnish Lapphund in Canada in 2008.
"In their native Finland, Lapphunds were originally developed to herd reindeer," Marden explained. "We call them 'Santa's Helpers.'"
Mary remarked, "Bruce is just this laid-back, loving dog. The Finnish Lapphunds are one of the friendliest breeds you'll probably ever meet."
The champs' invitations to Westminster were earned with Bruce's ranking as the No. 1 Finnish Lapphund in the country and Zoe's No. 4 ranking in her breed.
The decision to compete at "America's Dog Show" is not an inexpensive one. Total cost depends on many variables, including lodging and length of stay, of course. But one indicator of Westminster's status is handlers' fees, which can jump from $100 for a typical show, to $1,000 for this "Super Bowl for pooches."
As a junior showmanship competitor, Mary is ineligible to receive a fee.
"But it's such an honor to show there," she smiled. "They're such nice dogs, and the owners are so great to work with."
Know your stuff
What does it take to be a good handler?
"You have to have patience because when you're in the ring, the dog can feel when you're frustrated or when you're trying to hurry up," said Mary, who began showing at age 5. "You have to have 'soft' hands, and you have to have a good relationship with your dog. If your dog doesn't like you, doesn't trust you, it won't work out"
"Zoe shows a lot better for Mary for me," Hayes laughed. "Mary's very intuitive; she knows when Zoe is paying attention and when she's not. With subtle movements, like just putting her fingers in her pocket, she can get her alert and focused again."
Confidence is key.
"It may be friendly outside the ring, but once you're inside, you're on your own," Mary said. "You can't follow what other people are doing because they may not be doing it right. You have to be sure of yourself."
New York, New York
The atmosphere at Westminster is like no other dog show. Enthusiasts fly in from all over the world. Thousands of spectators flock to this five-star event.
"When you're on the floor, you can barely walk, it's so packed. And you'll hear so many languages," said Mary, who handled her beagle, Champion Irish Coffey Tipperary Sparkling Wine, to the First Award of Merit in the 15-inch beagles at Westminster in 2010.
Stakes are high, and owners and handlers take the competition very seriously.
"By that point, people aren't even talking; they just give you this look like, 'It's on,'" she added.
It can be daunting to even the most seasoned, but it can also be great fun, for exhibitors and spectators alike.
"It's really amazing -- all the people, Madison Square Garden ... "
As Mary's success continues, Sarah has found herself managing her daughter's career. She fields frequent calls and emails from owners inquiring about Mary showing their dogs.
"I have to remind people she's only 12!" smiled Sarah. "But I'm grateful so many reputable show breeders have that much confidence in such a young handler. We truly appreciate the success, but we're able to remember the early days, when the trips were many but the wins were few, and that keeps us grounded."
Showing "in front of the whole world" at Westminster has given Mary a composure beyond her years. In the ring, even in classes with adults, the slender, pony-tailed pre-teen is poised and focused. Later, responsibilities discharged, there is still time for fun -- like linking up with other girls her age, fellow exhibitors, to check out vendors' wares.
And New York? "Oh, I'm looking forward to it," Mary said eagerly, eyes bright. "I really like New York -- and the shopping is a big part!"
Being 12 and all-girl, after all, only comes around once.
The contents of this article have been modified since its original posting.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.