A pair of Hernando-owned and -handled bloodhounds will prance among an estimated 18,000 canines beginning Thursday, when the 2011 Florida Classic Clusters opens at Florida Classic Park, east of Brooksville.
Billed as the largest American Kennel Club dog show in Florida, and sponsored by kennel clubs from Clearwater, Manatee, Pasco, Tampa and Inverness, the 10-day event attracts dogs and judges from around the world.
"The dogs that are at the Classic Clusters are the same you'll see at Westminster and Eukanuba," said the bloodhounds' owner, Janet Billups, of Brooksville, referring to the most prestigious and by-invitation-only dog shows in the country.
Her hounds — Justice, 7, and Dusty, 4, father and son — have done some world traveling of their own. Billups bought Dusty from a breeder in North Carolina. Researching his pedigree, she came upon the father, Justice. Justice was born in Australia, then moved to Hawaii. Billups contacted the owner. Not enough bloodhounds were showing in Hawaii to earn Justice championship status — a dog must beat a set number of competitors to achieve that status — so the owner brought him to the Bloodhound National Show in Denton, Texas. The owner and Billups agreed to meet there.
"As soon as I saw him, I fell in love with him," said Billups. The owner, judging Billups' reaction, said, "He's yours."
"We got his championship," Billups said, "then got Dusty's."
Billups already was a name in the bloodhound world. She had campaigned for an unrelated dog, Dakota, as he gained championship status beginning in 2003 at just 6 months old. In 2004, at 11 months of age, he was ranked as the eighth-winningest bloodhound in AKC annuals.
Dakota went on to work at Disney World from 2005 through 2007 at the Haunted Mansion and was the first canine allowed to freely walk the grounds.
Thus, Justice and Dusty have big paw prints to fill. They will compete at the Classic Clusters on Jan. 15 and 20, Billups hoping to add to their laurels to bloodhound records.
Billups has limited the hounds' showings because she will also be busy as chairwoman of vendors at the event, with 45 to 50 expected. Vendors will offer everything from dog food and treats to collars, leads, sweaters, blankets and cushy beds, and for owners, breed identity jewelry, shirts, note cards, small statuary and bumper stickers.
A food court will offer a variety, from "Italian to Chinese, and it's good food, too," said the classic's spokeswoman, Diane Chiucchi. Typical carnival fare will be included: hamburgers, hot dogs, french fries and funnel cakes.
The nearly 100 judges come from New York, Tennessee, California and Louisiana, plus England, Canada and Colombia, Chiucchi said. Each is a specialist in particular breeds.
Most breeds compete every day. Also on tap are obedience and rally trials and tours to learn about dog judging and handling.
Canines available for adoption will be showcased.
Beth Gray can be contacted at email@example.com.