Dogs ready to have their day -- and nights -- at Westminster

NEW YORK — "Let me have the ..."

With those words, or perhaps simply with the point of a finger, a new top dog in America will be picked this week.

The Westminster Kennel Club show starts Monday morning and, to the owners of the 2,711 pooches set to take part, it's the Super Bowl, World Series and Daytona 500 of dogdom in the United States, one giant bark in the park.

Plenty of pugs, poodles and pointers, all popular pets. A total of 192 breeds and varieties, including a few not so familiar. Yep, that's a xoloitzcuintli.

The big honor? Best in show, to be chosen Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden. The reward? Zero prize money. But there's rich breeding potential, plus a lifetime of prestige — Uno the baying beagle left his paw prints forever in Westminster lore.

Sky the wire fox terrier won last year and is retired. Time for someone else to step up, and maybe follow her by stepping into the silver bowl trophy, too.

Here are things to know about Westminster:

THE FAVORITES: Las Vegas odds maker John Avello lists — for fun, not for betting — a Portuguese water dog as the 4-1 favorite. A solid choice, seeing how Matisse the Portie is among the top-winning show dogs of all time. And he's a cousin to Sunny, President Barack Obama's pet. Swagger the old English sheepdog finished second in 2013 and Nathan the bloodhound is definitely in the mix. Looking for long shots? Try a Norwegian lundehund or a white bull terrier, because there's only one of each kind entered.

HIS HONOR: Retired California trial court judge David Merriam will choose the winner. He's prominent in the dog world, but has never judged a best in show. So there's no real book on him — does he like terriers or hounds, big dogs or little ones? He won't get to form an early opinion, either. As per Westminster protocol, he'll stay away from the whole show until the very minute he walks into the ring late Tuesday night and sees the final seven contenders.

HOOP LET THE DOGS OUT: The NBA All-Star Game finished up Sunday night at Madison Square Garden, just in time for Westminster to move in. "We're the opening act for the dog show," New York Knicks scorer Carmelo Anthony kidded. On Saturday night, the All-Star festivities were in Brooklyn at the Barclays Center — that's Bark-lays, in dog talk. Jim Brogan knows about both pursuits. In the early 1980s, he played in the NBA with Bill Walton on the San Diego Clippers. Brogan went to the same high school that later produced Kobe Bryant and now is a motivational speaker and youth camp leader. His wife, CJ Thornberry-Brogan, breeds and shows cavalier King Charles spaniels. Sometimes she needs him to fill in as handler. "I get more nervous in the ring than I did taking Magic Johnson into the low post and trying to dunk over him," Brogan said.

GOOD SPORTS: Boston Red Sox catcher Ryan Hanigan is sending an Australian shepherd that won the breed last February. Former All-Star reliever and current MLB Network analyst Dan Plesac is planning to cover as a correspondent. New York Jets defensive back Darrin Walls also is expected to attend. The most famous athlete with a dog at Westminster was Lou Gehrig, the Yankees Hall of Famer whose German shepherd fared well in 1933.

DASHIN' AND FASHION: A few blocks from where the dogs walk, there's the catwalk: It's Fashion Week in New York. Fittingly, a lot of thought goes into what people wear into the ring. The dog is supposed to be the star, so handlers try to avoid outfits that draw attention. Wild patterns, glittery accessories and free-flowing clothes are no-nos. Watch two-time Westminster winner Michelle Scott (her husband handles Matisse, by the way) — neatly tailored, solid colors, nothing outlandish, no scrambling around.

A-PIER HERE: The best-of-breed judging is during the day at Piers 92 and 94, the exhibition spaces that jut into the Hudson River. Group winners — terrier, hound, toy, working, herding, sporting and nonsporting — are picked at night at the Garden. CNBC televises Monday evening, the USA Network does Tuesday. There are two new breeds this year, the coton de Tulear and the wirehaired vizsla.

IN THE DOGHOUSE: Travel around most anywhere and it's easy to spot Labrador retrievers, Dachshunds, Dalmatians and Chihuahuas. Yet one place they don't show up is on Westminster best in show list. They've never, ever won at this event that began in 1877. Some people say they're almost too popular and too common. Instead, pert terriers and poofed poodles often rule.

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