Y ou will find no dogs at the offices of the Westminster Kennel Club, located on the fourth floor of a mid-rise on lower Madison Avenue. In fact, you will find few people—two, in total, one of whom is David Frei, who is probably the most well-known human in the world of canines. If you’ve ever seen a clip from the Westminster Dog Show, you’ve heard his conspicuously tasteful voice. This week, he’ll host TV coverage of the show, held at Madison Square Garden, for the 22nd consecutive year.
Frei’s office is cluttered with pictures and posters from past events. He works under a gigantic portrait of his two family dogs—a 4-year-old Cavalier King Charles spaniel named Angel (pictured) and an 18-month-old Brittany spaniel named Grace—taken by the photographer Garry Gross. “We shot for two hours, and that’s the very first snap of the shoot,” he says. “Literally, the first frame.”
Despite his erudite-sounding intonation, Frei’s on-air observations are often phrased in casual, folksy language—he inspired Fred Willard’s goofy-announcer character in the dog-culture mockumentary Best in Show—befitting his surprisingly un-snooty background. He owned two Seattle sports bars and at one point did PR for the Denver Broncos, where he helped coin the nickname “Orange Crush” for the team’s vaunted seventies defense. But he moonlighted as a noted breeder and handler of purebred dogs—in 1989, he had the No. 1–ranked Afghan hound in the country—and Westminster asked him to audition for the announcing gig, perhaps figuring his PR background meant he’d be comfortable on-camera.
He got the job, eventually becoming the club’s public face and, in 2003, its second full-time employee. He never really goes off the clock. Leaving Westminster HQ, we take a taxi to Frei’s apartment so he can retrieve Angel for a visit with pediatric cancer patients at the Ronald McDonald House, where his wife, Cherilyn, is director of family support. (In a previous life, Cherilyn, a Catholic chaplain, was on the product-development teams that invented Crystal Pepsi and the Starbucks Frappuccino.) It is a short stroll from his 72nd Street condo to the McDonald House, and en route, Frei, a polite and cheerful man, seems to know most of the other dogs out for walks—a boxer, a French bulldog, a Basenji, and a greyhound, the last of which Frei recently recruited to enroll in his therapy–dog training program, Angel on a Leash. “I’ve always said New York is the greatest dog city in the world. People don’t always think that,” he says.
Frei is especially famous in his neighborhood because of one particular frequent guest: Uno the beagle, the charismatic 2008 Westminster winner. “Uno was the most famous and exciting [champion] we’ve ever had,” he says. “It’s incomparable.” Because Uno’s owner lives in Texas and is too elderly to travel, Frei became the beagle’s de facto spokesperson and escort. For much of the year following Uno’s win, the two flew around America on Midwest Airlines, which allowed the dog to have his own seat. “He had a special harness and his own ticket—it said ‘Uno Frei.’ Once, in St. Louis, the computer selected him for additional screening. We all know the employees of the TSA don’t always have a great sense of humor. But they pulled him out and patted him down and wanded him and took photos of the whole thing.” With Frei at his side, the spunky beagle racked up a series of milestones. He was the first show winner to visit the White House, the first to appear on a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and the first to throw out a first pitch at a major-league game—which he actually did twice, for the Cardinals and the Brewers. (The “pitches” consisted of Frei throwing a baseball for Uno to chase.)
Today Uno is retired on a 200-acre ranch outside Austin, and Frei is awaiting the next star. Perhaps it will be an upstart representing one of the six new AKC-recognized breeds that will debut at this year’s show, breeds that Frei has been studying up on in preparation for TV. The Boykin spaniel, for instance, is the official dog of South Carolina. “They hunt from boats,” he says.
One dog that won’t take this year’s crown is the 2010 winner, the Scottish terrier Sadie. For one thing, she’s pregnant—but it’s also rare for winners to risk tarnishing their Westminster crown by tempting fate twice. “The last dog that tried to repeat was in 1993,” Frei says, and that dog didn’t even win his group that year. “It’s so competitive these days.”