At approximately 10:45 next Tuesday night Percy Roberts (above), a 77-year-old dog fancier who used to be known to friends as Mr. Airedale, will enter the main ring in Madison Square Garden to judge the best-in-show of the Westminster Kennel Club. Roberts is a professional judge, the first professional to preside over best-in-show at the Garden in 10 years, and he is one of the most knowledgeable dog men who has ever lived. Moreover, he is an old-fashioned sporting type who brings an air of Dickens and Surtees into the ring. English by birth but American by naturalization, Roberts has been deeply involved in what he calls "doggy doings" since he was a lad in Cheshire. As a professional handler, he holds the record of having had four best-in-shows at Westminster, and he twice has won with dogs that were absolute unknowns.
While in England on a buying trip in the fall of 1933, Roberts happened to spot a female wirehaired fox terrier on a street in Liverpool. The bitch, almost 3, was on the way to a small show with her owner, "a white-collar man," Roberts remembers, "an amateur." She was a bit scruffy about the face and legs, but Roberts was so taken with her natural lines that he immediately struck a deal with the surprised owner and that December shipped her to the U.S. on behalf of Stanley Halle, a New York stockbroker and a client. Named Spicy Bit, she won at Westminster six weeks after arrival. In 1937 Roberts, still handling for Halle, won with another wire bitch, Spicy Piece, a dog that Roberts considers "a jewel," the best he ever has seen. He discovered her in England when she was sent to a friend's kennel to be serviced. She was then 4, and she never had been in a show in her life.
As a judge. Roberts retains his sharp buyer's eye. "When I step into the ring," he says, "I have the idea that the handlers are trying to sell the dogs to me. I buy the best." All told, Roberts will judge six dogs at Westminster: the pick of the hound, sporting, nonsporting, working, terrier and toy groups. As they parade into the ring with their handlers, Roberts will get insight into their balance and type. After the dogs are lined up for inspection, he will go over each one carefully, running his hands across the mouth, then the foreface, skull, ears, shoulders, back, hindquarters and tail. "The head is the map of the breed," Roberts says. "You look into the mouth to see if the teeth are all right. A man once said to me after I'd put a dog fourth that he had put it first. I told him the dog had teeth missing. He said that didn't matter, but I said to him, 'Try to sell a dog with missing teeth!' Then you feel the dog's skull. On some breeds there should be a balance between the fore-face, from the nose to the eyes, and the occiput. Ear carriage is important. The neck is obvious, but the placement of the shoulders is very important. They should be well laid back, so that the dog has a length of stride, and well-laid shoulders give a reach, a grace and elegance to the neck. A dog's back is measured from the point of shoulder to the hipbone. And the tail is important. A Doberman pinscher or a terrier, for example, should have a tail stuck on top. No dog is good without good feet. If a dog stands on all four toes on each foot, you know he's well balanced. His pad—his heel—if it's good, is round like a plum, and it throws his foot forward on the toes." Picking the best-in-show at Westminster should take Roberts no more than 15 minutes. "I know I can pick the best dog," he says. "That's what I'm there for. I'm not that bloody modest."
The American Kennel Club, the ruling authority in dogdom, has licensed only 30 persons as competent enough to judge all 115 recognized breeds. Speaking from on high, the AKC maintains that those 30 "all-rounders" are equal, but in the dog game five or six all-rounders are regarded as tops. Roberts is one of them. Indeed, to call him simply another all-rounder would be like saying that Oliver Wendell Holmes was another member of the Supreme Court.
February 13, 1967
According to John W. Cross Jr., chairman of the dog show committee of Westminster, "Percy has a way with animals. I don't mean dogs, but any kind of animals." In truth, Roberts is an expert on cattle. Although he never has judged cattle, he can become excited by a good Angus, Hereford, Jersey or Guernsey. He is interested in horses, too. Not a gambler, he visits the track just to see the horses and watch them run. When in Sydney several years ago to judge a dog show, he made a special trip to a museum in Melbourne to gaze at the stuffed remains of the great horse Phar Lap. Roberts says, "Why, I'd be interested in a good-looking donkey. Did you ever see cleaner legs than a donkey has? I mean a good donkey. There are some buggers with bumpy legs."
If an animal has quality, Roberts can sense it. On one of his trips to England he happened to see a Rouen duck that struck his fancy. He thought a dog client, who was interested in ducks, might like to have it. The owner agreed to sell the bird to Roberts if he could keep it for another six months to show. Roberts assented, and the duck won best bird at the Royal Agricultural show in London.
With his carefully waxed mustache, Roberts looks very much the country squire. Of medium height, he has a wardrobe given over to paddock boots, high shoes that have been made for him by Hindes of Liverpool for the past 50 years, odd trousers and checked sport coats with nipped-in waists. The coats have extra-large pockets so Roberts can conceal a dog-show catalog and a few pieces of liver. Some breeds, such as the Labrador, are supposed to have a certain expression to the face, and Roberts sometimes uses liver to arouse a dog's attention and see if the expression is up to snuff.
Roberts' father was a Welshman, a horse dealer, who settled in Heswall, a village in Cheshire, buying and selling hunters. Percy was the youngest of seven children. "My father was a good man," Roberts says. "He used to say, 'Always think of the fellow that's coming behind you.' There was never a person he dealt with that he couldn't deal with again. That's something for the horse business! And that's what I've done in dogs. One time the brother next youngest to me bought a horse that had faults. My father saw the horse, and he asked my brother, 'Did he impress you when he first came out of the barn?' My brother said no, but he had thought he could correct the faults. And my father said, 'Never buy a horse that doesn't impress you when he first comes out of the barn.' "
From the beginning, Roberts' passion was dogs, not horses. He hunted ferrets with terriers. He was fascinated by collies, intrigued by greyhounds and whippets, and obsessed by bulldogs.
When Roberts was 16 he answered an advertisement for a kennelman that had been placed by J. J. Holgate in Doncaster. "I was radiant when he accepted me," says Roberts. "It was like going to college." Holgate was the premier dog-man. As a judge, dealer and breeder, he toured the United Kingdom, the U.S., Europe, South Africa and Russia, and he was known in the canine world as "The Globe-Trotter." Roberts says, "Holgate told me I would learn more from him in six months than I would from anyone else in six years. It was true. I learned dogs from the ground up. I cleaned out the kennel. I exercised the dogs. When I had a spare hour I learned to trim."
Roberts progressed so well that in 1913 Holgate dispatched him to the U.S. on the Lusitania with half a dozen poodles that had been bought by the Misses Alger and Grace, the latter the steamship heiress, on Long Island. Impressed by the dogs, the ladies offered Roberts a job as a kennelman, and after obtaining Holgate's consent he worked in Great Neck for several months until poodles began to pall. "I was used to a variety kennel," he says. "This was poodles, poodles, poodles."
He then got a job with Vickery Kennels in Barrington, III. The owners were Mrs. Augustus V. Crawford and her nephew, Charles Perrin, and their establishment was truly lush. When Mrs. Crawford came to visit the dogs on weekends, a red carpet was unrolled for her. Roberts stayed at Vickery for two years, leaving to become manager of Otto Lehman's kennel in Lake Villa, III. While there, he began to suggest the purchase of various dogs he read about in the English dog press. Roberts, however, had not completely gone to the dogs. Friends in Chicago introduced him to a model, Estelle Finger, whom he married in 1917.
After World War I, Roberts quit to go on his own. He worked briefly in the East, rented a farm outside Chicago, then in 1919 moved to Noroton Heights, Conn., where he still lives.
In business as a handler, dog dealer and kennel consultant, Roberts turned to Holgate. "Holgate sent me an Irish terrier, a whippet and a wire," Roberts says. "I sold them all. I realized there was only one kind of dog to deal in: the best. For an enterprising Englishman the U.S. was the place. I started in on the big stuff, and I had my pick. The first big deal I had was with Mr. Stanley Halle in 1922. He wanted a wirehaired dog to go with his bitches. I got him the best wire in England, Deykin Surprise. He won five best-in-shows here in 10 days. I had a winner advertising for me. You didn't make the money off the big dogs, you know. You bought them for $3,500, and you sold them for $3,500. The thing was to win. My business was having people build kennels. And if I had a dog that didn't do well, I was dissatisfied before the client was, and I'd take the dog back."
In 1925 Roberts began making trips to England in the spring and fall to buy dogs. He did especially well with Airedales and other terriers, and he was aided in his quests by Holgate and Jim Parkington, a great terrier man who had the Flornell Kennels in Lancashire. On his first trip Roberts struck gold with Sam Warburton, a Yorkshireman with whom he had done business by cable. "I was money in the bank for him," Roberts says. "When we came into the house after looking at the wires in the kennel, we went into the kitchen, and Sam, he says in his Yorkshire dialect, 'Na, my lad, what dost thee?' I said, 'How much for the two young dogs and the sire Signal Circuit?' And Sam said, 'Na then, my lad, thee are asking for the cream off the milk.' He gave me a price, and I cut a third of it down. We made the deal, and Signal Circuit won the best-in-show at Westminster in 1926 for Mr. Halle. That was a good year. I won best-in-show, best brace, best team—a grand slam."
On his many trips abroad, Roberts was never at a loss to put time to use. Once when he failed to buy a promising Dalmatian in Colchester, he took the local train, a "stopper," back to London. "I get on with my Gladstone bag, and I sit down in my compartment to read a dog paper," he recalls. "We come to a stop, and I look out to see the station is Tiptree. 'Tiptree!' I say, 'This is where that chap keeps the whippets!' I get off, and I ask a man 'Does a fellow named Wilkins live here?' And he says, 'Which one?' And I say, 'The one that keeps the whippets.' He tells me, I take a taxi 10 miles to the house, I knock on the door and I say, 'My name is Roberts, and I'm looking for pups.' He had a litter 5 months old, two white-and-blue bitches and three fawns. I bought the two bitches and shipped them to Parkington's place, because I've got dogs coming from all over England. Well, the bitches got distemper but, contrary to what you'd expect, the best lived. I brought her over when she was 9 months old. I called Mrs. George A. Anderson, who had given me an order for a dog, not a bitch, and I said, 'I've got a sweet bitch that will do a lot of winning when she's ready.' Mrs. Anderson bought her, and she won 21 best-in-shows. Champion Flornell Glamorous, biggest-winning whippet up to that time."
Roberts never knew where he was going to find a superb dog. He discovered Beatham Skittle, a lovely Dandie Dinmount terrier, swimming a brook in Scotland, and he tracked down King Son, later a celebrated greyhound, in a navvy's chicken coop. "Poor bugger was skin and bones, but such a beautiful frame," Roberts says. "I could never win a best-in-show with him. He'd been a coursing dog, and whenever he'd see a Pom or a Peke he'd go haywire."
At a British show Roberts would make his move when the show was over. "All people care about is the winner," he says. "No one gives a damn about seconds—they're losers—and that's where I came in." Under expert hands, a loser shown poorly at Birmingham could prove to be best at Morris & Essex.
He was buying in England when the crash came in '29. "I bought more dogs anyway," he recalls. "I landed in New York in December with 32 dogs. I said to myself, 'Somebody's made some money somewhere. I've got to find him.' Six weeks, and I'm out of the hole! Six months later people began to believe the Depression." He did not go abroad again until 1933.
In the fall of 1936 Roberts made his greatest haul in England. After a tough voyage back to New York in December aboard the Scythia, he landed with 25 dogs, "not a dud among them." There was the Irish setter, Red Sails of Salmagundi, "one of the only sporting dogs that beat My Own Brucie." There was the Gordon setter, Barnlake Brutus. "Went down in history." There was the coursing greyhound, King Son. And there was Spicy Piece, winner at Westminster six weeks later. Stanley Halle happened to be in London when Roberts bought Spicy Piece for him at Parkington's kennel in Lancashire. They talked on the telephone, and Halle asked if Roberts had found anything. "The best wire in the world!" Roberts fairly shouted. "What, again?" asked Halle.
World War II halted Roberts' expeditions to England, and when the war was over things were not quite the same. Holgate was dead. Parkington was dead. There was, Roberts says, "a different crowd." On the night of February 22, 1951, at the conclusion of the Eastern Dog Show in Boston, he retired as a handler, dealer and kennel consultant to become a judge. He had shown his first dogs in the U.S. at the same show in 1914.
Professional judging offers small fees, but Roberts was comfortably off and judging allowed him to keep up with doggy doings. In 1951 and 1952 he was voted Judge of the Year by his peers. A judge may win the award only twice, but it is a tribute to Roberts' abilities that his name has been placed in nomination several times since.
Roberts accepts invitations to judge as they are received in the mail. On occasion he has had to reject an assignment at a prestige show because he already has agreed to work at a smaller show. "It's the little shows that make the big shows," he says. As of now, he is fully committed through 1967, and he has 12 shows booked for 1968. Roberts has judged all over the U.S. and Canada, and also in England, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, Tasmania, Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil. The one assignment that always eluded him was best-in-show at Westminster. He had judged breeds there and even a group, but the club had continued to call on amateurs to judge best-in-show.
In April of 1965 the members of the dog show committee of the Westminster Kennel Club met to decide on judges for the 1967 show. The committee agreed to invite Percy Roberts, a professional, to judge best-in-show. A few days later John W. Cross Jr., the committee chairman and an old client of Roberts, phoned him at home and asked if he might drop by. Roberts told him to come over, and after Cross arrived they chatted about other matters for a while, and then Cross said, "Percy, the Westminster Kennel Club would like to offer you the invitation to judge best-in-show in February 1967." Very moved, Roberts mumbled, "Of course, Mr. Cross, of course." There was a pause, and Cross, preparing to leave, said, "Percy, the club will be very happy to know of your acceptance." Percy Roberts pulled himself together and said softly, "This is the climax to a career."