BROOKSVILLE — While sponsor Purina owns the slogan "Your Pet, Our Passion," exhibitors pouring in for the upcoming Florida Gulf Coast Clusters dog show own their pets passionately.
Why else would they travel hundreds, even thousands, of miles to lead more than 18,000 canines for opportunities to garner ribbons, trophies, championship reputations and maybe their name in lights?
The kennel clubs of Clearwater, Inverness, Manatee, Pasco and Tampa Bay are joining once again to stage the largest pedigree dog show in the Southeast, one of the largest nationwide at Florida Classic Park, east of Brooksville. Specialty shows Monday and Tuesday for terriers, Great Danes and golden retrievers will lead into the American Kennel Club-sanctioned all-breed contests opening Thursday and running through Jan. 18 and from Jan. 20 to 24.
"This is usually like a practice to go to Westminster," show spokeswoman Pat Lombardi said, referring to the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, the premier American Kennel Club-sanctioned contest held each February at Madison Square Garden in New York City. "You have to have major (winner's) points on your dog to get in Westminster," Lombardi explained.
Points are awarded for prize placings in lesser shows; a greater number of entries in those translates to more points. With the Clusters' thousands of entries, winners here stand to reap big points.
The Clusters are an international event, Lombardi pointed out.
"Lots are from South America, Canada, Mexico," she said. "There are absolutely veterans from Westminster."
While more than 100 breeds will attract thousands of entries to the all-breed events, the specialty shows are expected to add to the overall numbers since the terriers, Great Danes and golden retrievers will vie for extra trophies. Those entries likely will stay for the all-breed shows.
Since judging carries on throughout the day in multiple rings, grooming and showmanship practice are ongoing in circuslike tents and across the grounds. In those locales, visitors can get closeup looks at the processes and glean information from the exhibitors.
For regular-folk dog fanciers, the show offers a Doggie Fun Zone, featuring timed obstacle races, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily.
"Any kind of dog is welcome," Lombardi said. "It's just the fun of having your dog do the course." A participation fee of $12 is payable on arrival.
Of course, the festivallike extravaganza offers other opportunities for visitors can part with their money. About 100 vendors will hawk items such as dog bedding, toys, equipment, food, supplies, clothing for canines and humans, jewelry — everything imaginable for dogs.
A food court will offer Chinese and Italian fare, as well as American carnival food and sandwiches. Accommodating a range of outdoor temperatures, there also will be ice cream stands and coffee bars.
During the break in shows on Jan. 19, visitors can take in a yard sale of used dog-related items offered by show dog handlers.
Last year's 18,000 entries, though short of the record of 20,000-plus, signified that the recovery from the recent recession is continuing, Lombardi said.
"But entries are rising and we had a huge show at Orlando (Christmas week)," she said, "so we're hoping to get more here."
Contact Beth Gray at email@example.com.