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Clara Alford – Blazing Trails in the Toy Ring

From the archives of The Canine Chronicle, December 2010



By Amy Fernandez

Great handlers understand the fine line that separates expert presentation from sharp salesmanship. Careers and reputations hinge on the ability to showcase a dog without crossing that line. Handlers often cultivate a distinctive personal image to reinforce the impact. Very few have done it as successfully as Clara Alford.

Born in Oklahoma, Clara ranks among the few Native American professional handlers in the history of our sport. Petite, slender and dark haired, she enhanced her unmistakable look with distinctive sterling and turquoise jewelry inspired by her Cherokee heritage. Although she got a late start as a professional, by the mid 1950s she was regarded as one of the country’s premier Toy handlers.

She first came to prominence owner/handling her Alford’s Chihuahuas. Her breeding program was noted for successfully perpetuating type and quality with historically important bloodlines like Perralto.

Her technical expertise and uncanny rapport with her dogs made her a natural for this profession. Her natural talent was coupled with almost supernatural determination to accomplish her goals. America’s interstate highway system barely existed when Clara started campaigning dogs. Standardized routes, accurate maps, and paved four lane highways were as rare as motorhomes back then. Typical dog show transportation was a plain old car, without air conditioning or hermetically sealed windows. But long drives weren’t optional for serious exhibitors west of the Mississippi. There were far fewer shows back then and convenience wasn’t a major consideration for clubs that staged them.

Clara clocked thousand of miles as a professional. She showed all Toy breeds. Her reputation was built on her remarkable success with Pekes, Poms, Min Pins, and IGs. But she didn’t shy away from complicated drop-coated breeds and challenges like black Pugs She could spot star quality a mile away and willingly took on a diamond in the rough. However, she refused to exploit her talent by promoting inferior dogs. Nor did she hesitate to return dogs to clients when they were close to finishing. She saw no reason for them to continue paying for her services when they could easily complete the project.

She was first and foremost a breeder. From that standpoint, some of her practices made perfect sense, even though they seemed contradictory to business strategy.

Her big break as a handler came in 1954 when she took over Ch. Tejano Texas Kid, a Smooth fawn Chihuahua dog bred and owned by Myrle Roberts. The Kid was just over a year old. His soundness and incredible ring presence compensated for his lack of maturity. The Kid was eye-catching, but he was a Toy. And back then, Toys were not considered serious contenders for Best in Show, especially Chihuahuas.

Percy Roberts had followed Clara’s career from the get-go. Her consistently good Chihuahuas initially caught his interest. He got more interested when she began to handling The Kid. From 1954-56 she campaigned him throughout the country, achieving a breathtaking record.

Clara showed him 37 times in 1954, 67 times in 1955, and 13 times in 1956. This total of 110 shows resulted in a record of 108 BOV wins, 102 Toy Group placements, including 51 Firsts, exactly half of his total placements. Clara showed him to back-to-back national specialty wins in 1954 and 55, and he ranked as the #1 Smooth Coat Chihuahua for 1955 and ‘56.

The following year Clara took over the legendary Peke, Ch. Chik T’Sun of Caversham. Known as Gossie, he was whelped in 1954. In 1957 he was imported from Britain by Nigel Aubrey Jones who showed him to several Bests before selling him to Mr. and Mrs. C.C. Venables in Atlanta, Georgia.

Quoted in Popular Dogs, Percy Roberts described Gossie’s show campaign as “fearless.” Clara showed him to every judge from coast to coast for two years. He called her, “the dog’s devoted slave” emphasizing his incredible coat and condition throughout this grueling campaign. Clara was a meticulous groomer, and her presentation of Gossie set the trend that made the Peke a glamour breed.

She showed him 173 times. Highlights of Gossie’s career included a string of 14 consecutive BIS wins, back-to-back Bests at the Chicago International, and Westminster Group First’s in 1957 and 1959. Westminster 1958 remained his only defeat in breed competition. He had been America’s top ranked dog for three years when Clara took him back to that ring in 1960. It was quite possibly the toughest Toy Group in the show’s history. Judged by famed Maltese breeder, Dr. Vincenzo Calvaresi, second went to Ch. Rebel Roc Cassanova von Kurt, and third went to Ch. Cappoquin Little Sister. Her handler, Anne Hone Rogers, had won Westminster in 1956 and ‘59, and would take Little Sister to the top of the dog world the following year. Fourth went to Ch. Rider’s Sparklin Gold Nugget, the record-breaking Pom that had racked up 41 Best in Shows and 119 Groups.

Although Pekes have done it several times since then, Gossie was the first to make it to the top at Westminster. In his show report, Gazette editor Arthur Frederick Jones called it, “one of the greatest tributes ever accorded the Peke in his record breaking triumphs, for to win under a top Terrier judge such as Mr. Hartman, the Toy had to have soundness and flawless gait. …it had to be a great dog under that coat for this judge to send it to the top.” Clara’s cool professionalism crumbled when Hartman gave her the nod. She impulsively swept Gossie into her arms. He responded with a big sloppy kiss as tears streamed down her face and cameras flashed.

Gossie was retired after this historic win. His phenomenal record of 166 Groups and 126 Bests stood until the 1980s. Clara continued to make records, campaigning famous winners like the Pom, Ch. Bonner’s Peppersweet Red Pod, and the Min Pin, Ch. Bo-Mar’s Drummer Boy. After retirement as a professional handler, Clara went on to judge. Her ability to spot quality was an accepted fact. Win or lose, breeders wanted to show to her. She remained one of the era’s most popular Toy judges until her untimely death from cancer in 1972.

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