BROOKSVILLE — A year ago, all was strangely quiet at Florida Classic Park. The 50 acres where the Florida Gulf Coast Clusters Winter Dog Shows are held each January lacked the usual parade of strutting canines.
The reason: Two of the five shareholder kennel groups were locked in a prolonged legal tussle.
The battle in Hernando County Court cost the clubs an estimated $130,000 in legal fees, according to Clusters coordinator Mary Stolz. It ended in July with the case being terminated by both parties.
The toll to the clubs was huge, Stolz said. Last year's event was moved to Ocala, but it failed to draw as many entries as previous shows in Hernando.
"The whole legal thing definitely hurt us financially," Stolz said. "It'll likely be a while until we're fully back on our feet."
The all-breed shows — considered the largest American Kennel Club-sanctioned event in Florida — return this week to their traditional dates at the site on Lockhart Road that is owned and operated by member kennel clubs from Clearwater, Inverness, Manatee, Pasco and Tampa Bay. Now in its 16th year, the two-week event is expected to draw about 1,500 entries from across the country.
Stolz admits that the number is down about 25 percent from recent years. The weaker-than-usual entry list stems in part from a still-soft economy that has hurt many dog shows, she said. But the drawn-out legal controversy that questioned how show proceeds were divided among the individual clubs didn't help, causing a deep rift among some club members. Stolz hopes that bringing the shows back to the site east of Brooksville will help heal some wounds.
"I think everyone who ever came to the Brooksville show loved having it there," Stolz said. "Moving it (to another location) was a last-resort decision we felt we had to make."
Hernando County tourism coordinator Tammy Heon said that the show is a proven boon to the local economy, bringing in an estimated $1.5 million in tourism dollars during its two-week run. A check of motels near Interstate 75 last week showed that most are fully booked for this year's event.
"These are people who shop, eat at local restaurants and visit attractions while they're here," Heon said. "It's nice to have them back with us."
As one of the top events in the Southeast, the Florida Classic Clusters Winter Dog Shows attract competitors from every region of the country. Winning brings prestige to owners, breeders and animals alike.
Typically, a show dog starts out as a "class" competitor and needs 15 points before the animal is deemed champion worthy. Points must include two major events. The system of points, which is set by the AKC, differs according to breed and even region where the dog competes.
Competitors are judged by breed standards such as height, weight, color, size of eyes, length of muzzle and temperament. Hair dyes, bleaching and powders aren't allowed.
A dog's standing within its breed depends on how many other dogs it has defeated. Repeat wins advance a dog's standing and earn it celebrity status.
About 160 breeds will be represented at the winter shows, and visitors will be given an opportunity to go behind the scenes to observe how the canines are readied for competition, according to event chairwoman Pat Lombardi.
"Even if you're not a dog person," she said, "it can be a lot of fun to watch."
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.