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Wednesday, February 6, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Can a Woodinville pooch go all the way at Westminster?

Special to The Seattle Times

On TV

Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, Monday and Tuesday in New York City. Zeus competes for Best of Breed Tuesday morning. Group judging in the show is televised 8-9 p.m. Monday and 8-11 p.m. Tuesday on USA Network. It will be televised from 9-11 p.m. Monday on CNBC.

The exception to the rule "age before beauty" may be puppies. Few can resist the goofball charisma of a young dog. At least, that's what the team behind a precocious Labrador retriever from Woodinville is hoping.

At only 13 months old, Zeus is 80 pounds of muscle with a light cream coat, square head, quizzical expression and teeth whiter than a Hollywood starlet's.

"When I'm walking through [a show], it's like basically I have one of the Beatles at the end of the lead," Zeus' owner Toni Leitao says. "This little guy is a rock star."

Zeus' next appearance will be at Madison Square Garden in New York City, where he'll be among some of the youngest competitors at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Only two dogs under 18 months have ever taken the big prize.

Early in his career, way back in November, Zeus was beating seasoned champions more than three times his age out of the puppy class. (His full name is Ch. Gingerbred Celestial Thunder. "Ch." stands for champion.) He attained his American championship — based on a point system representing the numbers of dogs beaten — at the tender age of 10 ½ months and has swept his breed in 17 of his last 19 shows.

"He's so good, you're like, oh, my God, what do we do?" says Zeus' handler Ellen Cottingham of Amboy, Clark County. "Do we let him go away and grow up like you would normally do with a special [a breed champion] or do we keep going until somebody beats him?"

Zeus' owners Leitao and Lorraine Yu are pups in their own right. Although a chocolate Lab named Mocha got them "into loving Labs" 15 years ago, they got their first show dog, a black Lab named Bica, only about two years ago.

She started strong in show competition but got waylaid by a serious spider bite during AKC hunting tests. "She almost died," Yu says. Bica recovered and went on to have a litter. Zeus is their second show dog ever.

"We didn't plan for him to be so successful so soon," says Leitao, a lead program manager at Microsoft. "Usually with a male Lab you're talking probably 2 years old, 3 years old before they really start competing. It's a little overwhelming right now."

While Zeus may be young in dog months, he's physically mature. "This line grows up fast," breeder Christine Tye says. "They are born big and they stay big. He's not going to get the uglies like a lot of puppies."

Tye owns Gingerbred Farms in Sonoma, Calif., where Ch. Gingerbred Pasta Luna (Noodle) was bred to Ch. Sunset Lubberline Spinnaker (Chute) in a type-to-type match that produced Zeus. Two of Tye's Gingerbred dogs have been ranked the No. 1 Labrador in the country (based on the number of dogs defeated in the show ring over the course of the year). She's hoping Zeus will make three.

"He's a gorgeous mover," says Pauline Mortier, of Lubberline Labradors, in Howell, Mich. She owns Chute, Zeus' sire. Chute won the Labrador Retriever Club of the Potomac Specialty show, the largest single-breed show in the world, in April 2006. Pedigree he passed down to Zeus.

"[Zeus] has what we call very nice structure," Mortier says. "He has good angles in the front and in the rear, beautiful rock-hard topline, very pretty face, and he's a showman."

The yellow pup's youth and exuberance is balanced by the seasoning of his handler. Cottingham got her professional handlers' license from the AKC in 1973. She's finished (made champions out of) thousands of dogs, including hundreds of Labs and several number ones.

"Someone can bring me a dog and in five minutes I'll tell them whether I can finish the dog or whether he should go home and be a gun dog or a pet," Cottingham says. "That's part of my job."

She looks for the essentials — appearance and structure, breed type and soundness — and that something extra, what she calls heart or showmanship. Star power. Just having Cottingham agree to handle Zeus raises his cred.

"My reputation is in bringing good dogs to judges," Cottingham says. "I have a very high standard." It's like a preseal of approval that just might influence a judge to take this puppy seriously.

Cottingham doesn't simply parade Zeus in the ring. She builds a whole campaign for the dog, which includes selecting shows where he will rack up points. Next week, her campaign will be put to the test.

At Westminster, Labrador retrievers are the largest breed group with 51 entrants, including five top dogs there by invitation. After breed, it becomes almost impossible. Consider this: The most popular breed in America has never won Best in Show at Westminster or even Best of Group. The Sporting Group, of which Labs are a part, is a tough nut to crack.

"The Gordons and the Irish and the English setters, the pointers, are fast moving and flashy and even the golden retriever with all the coat flowing, etc., is flashy," Mortier explains. "The Labrador is not supposed to be a flashy dog. He's supposed to be a steady, even hunter and retriever."

Still, when you dig a little deeper into the Zeus campaign strategy, winning at Westminster may not be the thing. In New York, Zeus will be exposed to many judges, who attend as spectators. If they like him there, they may remember him favorably down the road at other shows. It's part of the larger effort not to win Westminster but to make Zeus the No. 1 Lab in the country.

"You can go to The Garden and lose in the breed and still come out a big winner," Cottingham says. Not much consolation for spectators hoping for an upstart upset.

Lisa Wogan is a frequent contributor to The Seattle Times: vietato@msn.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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