NEW YORK — When she heard the news, Valerie Nunes-Atkinson simply dropped to her knees and buried her hands in her face.
After all, this almost never happened.
Nunes-Atkinson, the owner, breeder and handler of CJ — a 3-year-old German shorthaired pointer — won the highest honor at the 140th annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, claiming the coveted Best in Show award.
“He was born this way,” Nunes-Atkinson said in a press conference after winning the award. “We always say that from the moment CJ was very young, when he walked across the room, we thought: ‘Oh, boy. We have a special one.’ ”
CJ (GCH Vjk-Myst Garbonita’s California Journey) was the No. 1 German shorthaired pointer in the United States in 2015 and impressed the judges with his graceful, balanced stride and prototypical deep brown hair on his head, combined with a sleek white body complete with freckled brown spots.
Dr. Richard Meen selected the winner among the seven contestants from the hound, toy, non-sporting, herding, sporting, working and terrier groups. Meen picked Lucy the borzoi as the Reserve Best in Show.
“He oozed that pointer style,” Meen told USA TODAY Sports minutes after the competition. “It was clear he wasn’t a sight hound. He exhibited all the qualities you want in a pointer. And the other thing is that he was light and fluid on his feet. Those two qualities were very important to me.”
Earlier in the night, a Samoyed named Bogey won the working group; and Charlie the Skye terrier won its group. Annabelle (a bulldog), Rumor (a German shepherd), Panda (a Shih Tzu) and Lucy advanced by winning their groups Monday night.
Nunes-Atkinson said there are two things that make CJ stand out from the rest. “One, he fits the standard. He epitomizes that. But he has that extra sparkle – that extra something that makes you stop and look at him. He had that from a very young age. We always say he’s an old soul. There’s something different about this one, and I’ve had shorthaireds for a very long time.”
Nunes-Atkinson actually had two dogs in the running for Best in Show, as she is Lucy's regular handler. The borzoi's owner, however, Mai Ozeki, opted for her husband, Shota Hirai – a professional handler in Japan – to lead Lucy this week.
Though it may have appeared initially that Ozeki’s decision to show Lucy within the family for their first trip to Westminster could leave Nunes-Atkinson out of the running for the show’s top prize, her handling of CJ proved to be a stroke of luck.
CJ is the third German shorthaired pointer to win Westminster’s Best in Show, and this marked the first time since 1983 that a single owner, breeder and handler won the award. It was CJ’s 18th Best in Show award overall.
“For me, it’s very important that each breed of dog take me back into the past of what they were bred to do, and how they were bred to do it,” Meen said. “CJ as a German shorthaired pointer had to have the quality of pointing and being in the field to do that. This dog never stopped looking, thoughtfully, into the sights in front of him.”
Nunes-Atkinson, who is from Temecula, Calif., started as a junior handler at Westminster when she was just 15. CJ, whom she calls The Prince, has been a joy to show.
"He knows what he's supposed to do. What he does, it wasn't really trained,” she said. “It was just reinforced.”
As Nunes-Atkinson added later: “In the ring, he's very serious. It's all business.”
It’s a far cry from what CJ is like at home.
“At home, he's silly,” she said. “His best friend is a whippet named Ramona. They rip around our property and get in trouble, have a good time. He gets dirty. He's a typical dog, a normal dog, and always has to have something in his mouth."
Westminster’s Best in Show recognizes achievement in exemplary breed standards. More than 2,700 dogs across 197 breeds made up the field, which was whittled down over the past two days. Westminster is the second-longest continuously running sporting event, behind only the Kentucky Derby.
And for Nunes-Atkinson, there's no bigger achievement.
"For us that are in this sport, this is the pinnacle," she said. "This is what keeps us up at night. This is what gives us tears when we're breeding. This is the show of all shows."