NEW YORK (Reuters) – Thousands of dogs from 20 countries will compete in this year’s annual Westminster Kennel Club show in New York, which opens Sunday and culminates with the crowning of “Best-in-Show,” the most coveted prize for pedigree dogs in the United States.

This year’s 3-day competition will showcase the skills and good looks of more than 2,600 dogs from 49 U.S. states and 19 other countries, including Japan, Australia and Thailand.

Now in its 144th year, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show bills itself as the second-oldest sporting event in the country, behind only the Kentucky Derby horse race.

In addition to dogs of every shape and size, the event brings thousands of breeders, handlers and dog enthusiasts to New York for a celebration of all things canine.

Starting on Sunday, judges will pick individual dogs that best exemplify the standards of his or her breed, from the exotic to the familiar. The “Best-of-Breeds” then compete within one of seven groups: hounds, toys, non-sporting, herding, working, sporting and terrier. The dogs that emerge victorious at the group stage then vie for the “Best in Show” trophy, awarded on Tuesday evening at Madison Square Garden.

A Wire Fox Terrier named King took the top prize in the 2019 show. He was the 15th member of his breed to take the “Best of Show” title.

For the first time this year, the show will feature the Azawakh breed, described by the club as a “slender sighthound and ancient companion of desert-roaming nomads.” With six dogs competing to be named top Azawakh, the total number of competing breeds increases to 204, including perennial favourites like the Labrador, golden retriever and the corgi.

The Westminster Kennel Club has its roots in New York City in the 1870s, when a group of sporting gentlemen would meet at a hotel bar near Union Square in lower Manhattan to trade stories about hunting and the exploits of their dogs, according to the club’s website.

One night, the men decided to put on a dog show, and they named it after the gathering spot, the long-gone Westminster Hotel.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York; Editing by Frank McGurty and Dan Grebler)

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