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A Star Handler at the Westminster Dog Show

If you like dogs, New York City is the place to be this week. More than 2,500 champion show dogs have descended upon Madison Square Garden for the129th Westminster Kennel Club’s dog show. One of the top African-American handlers in the sport is there, hoping to make history. Reporter Allison Keyes had a chance to watch him work his magic.

At the Westminster show, Hiram Stewart is like a rock star. The six-foot-plus native of Kenner, La., carries himself with the class and presence of Sidney Portier. The moment he walks into ring for the Pekingese competition, his fans go wild. Running at his feet is a dog standing about nine inches high, weighing just 12 pounds. “I guess I kind of stand out with a Pekingese,” he says with a chuckle.

Stewart is perhaps best known for handling Les, who won the Westminster’s toy group in both 2003 and 2004. USA Today has called Stewart the most successful African-American handler in the sport -- but he says others have helped pave the way. Stewart singles out Eugene Blake, an African-American handler whose Afghan won the hound group in 1973.

The dogs Stewart handles live with him during their careers, and he's on the road every weekend weekend except Christmas and New Year’s Eve. The sport isn't cheap, either -- an owner can spend $250,000 on a dog's handler, advertising and travel during the dog's career. "It's a lot of dedication and it takes up a lot of your personal life," Stewart says. "But it's very rewarding in the long run."

Final judging takes place Tuesday night.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Allison Keyes is an award-winning journalist with almost 20 years of experience in print, radio, and television. She has been reporting for NPR's national desk since October 2005. Her reports can be heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition Sunday.