NEW YORK — Ever since little Vivi ran away, whippets have been sentimental favorites at America’s most prestigious dog show.
This year, the Madison Square Garden crowd can root for one — she’s Chanel, a sleek, 2-year-old who can sprint 35 mph and loves to chase birds and tennis balls.
On Monday night, she glided across the green carpet at the Westminster Kennel Club and captured the hound group. Next, she’ll likely see top choice Sadie the Scottish terrier inside the best in show ring Tuesday night.
“Nothing fazes her,” said Chanel’s handler, Lori Wilson.
Vivi became international news in 2006, a day after winning an honorable mention at the Garden. Set for a flight back to the West Coast, she instead broke free from her travel crate, bolted down the runway at Kennedy Airport and disappeared into the night.
The sweet champion formally known as Bohem C’est La Vie was never heard from again despite extensive rescue efforts that lasted more than a year.
There were 2,500 dogs entered this time, and joining Chanel with group wins were a toy poodle who overcame his fear of crowds, a first-timing French bulldog and a puli back for another try.
A black-and-brown greyhound emerged as the fan favorite. Waiting for her chance to show Monday night, she was far from the typical laid-back nature of her breed. Instead, Era gnawed on her water bottle, frolicked with a friendly harrier and soared through the air to catch treats.
“We were throwing snowballs to her in Central Park yesterday,” handler Rindi Gaudet-Krickeberg said after finishing second among hounds. “She’s a clown.”
Dogs from 173 breeds and varieties competed, and they included three newcomers: the Irish red and white setter, the Norwegian buhund and the Pyrenean shepherd.
A puli called Conrad was a repeat winner in the herding bunch. Handler Linda Pitts hopes his victories raise the profile of the breed, noted for its corded coat.
“This is basically a house pet turned show dog,” Pitts said of her 6½-year-old champ. “He has a nice bounce.”
Also in the final seven is Bru, a Canadian-bred French bulldog who became the first of her kind to take the nonsporting group. She began the day by winning her breed, beating out an entry from the former Patty Hearst.
Also winning was Walker, the toy poodle who got spooked in the big ring last February.
“This last year, he grew up,” handler Kaz Hosaka said.
The sporting, working and terrier groups were set for Tuesday evening, with judge Elliott Weiss ready to make his best in show pick shortly before 11 p.m.
The Garden was steamy for the opening session. More than a thousand dogs were housed right off the main floor, some of them comforted by ice packs and mini-fans, and thousands of spectators jammed inside on a holiday to see them.
“It’s a madhouse,” said Jane Bates, co-owner of a top golden retriever called Treasure.
Clint Livingston hoped to make it to the final seven.
He handles Treasure, along with 16 other champions at Westminster. It’s a family affair — brother Brian brought 12 dogs and sister Colette had four. Naturally, their mom and dad were in the business.
“She wouldn’t let me show unless I made straight As,” Clint said.
Lesson learned well. The valedictorian of his high school class in Texas, he began coming to Westminster in 1984 and has done his share of winning in best of breed and best of group judging.
With so many dogs, the family got its own corner grooming area, away from the pack of people and pooches. They also employed five assistants, and the constant whirl of brushes, clippers and blow dryers made it look like Livingston Spa.
This year, Clint is handling a petits bassets griffons vendeen, a long-haired dachshund, a German shepherd, a Chinese shar-pei and an Australian cattle dog, among others. Inevitably, the siblings wind up competing against each other.
At one point Monday, the boys found themselves in the same Australian shepherd ring. Brian took the top prize. Clint, meanwhile, dutifully dashed off to show his brother’s Finnish spitz.
Any gloating, bro?
“I might wink at him,” Brian said, smiling.