Kasu Igorachi, an amusement arcade magnate, has 12 bulldogs, every one honed to genetic perfection. Harry Jordan, known throughout the dog world as Haj, could see that. He has been a judge for more than 40 years. At 78 he is the globe-trotting granddaddy of the growing international circuit. But even he has trouble keeping pace with the rocketing price of dog- flesh.
Asked, on a visit to Japan to value the drooling dozen, he ventured: "About a quarter of a million?" Mr Igorachi smiled enigmatically. "More like one and a quarter million," he said.
Over pounds 100,000 each? For a bulldog? "You can probably shave some off that," says Haj. "But wealthy Japanese and Americans are paying for top dogs like they pay for great works of art."
Dogs age, unlike paintings. But owning the bloodstock of a champion is some guarantee of a return on investment. Thousands of competitors gathered in Darlington at the weekend for what is known as the "Crufts of the North". On show were dogs worth considerably more than some of the racehorses that run at nearby Sedgefield.
"Top German shepherds are going for anything from pounds 20,000 to pounds 40,000," says Haj, who had to turn down his invitation to Darlington - he was already booked at a show in Oslo. And bookings are coming in for1998. By then he will be 81 and, he hopes, still travelling distances that would exhaust a man half his age. Jet lag? You might as well ask if he suffers from distemper.
I caught Haj just off Kilburn High Road in his favourite capital, London. As a long-standing worker for the RSPCA, he has had a flat for 45 years above its "Memorial Dispensary". The frontage is dominated by large plaques dedicated to the 484,143 horses, mules, bullocks, dogs and carrier pigeons killed in the First World War. "Every Armistice Day the War Graves Commission puts a wreath on the front door," Haj says.
We sat in his small but colourful backyard, a fertile oasis. Coos issued from the pigeon loft, interrupted by blasts from Georgie, a yellow- headed Amazon parrot. His only other pet is a feral cat called Mimi. Why no dogs?
"It wouldn't be fair on them with me being away so much," he said. Back in the Fifties and Sixties he had Irish wolf-hounds, Italian greyhounds, long-haired dachshunds. He reared a dozen at a time. On Sunday mornings he used to read the papers in Hyde Park while his dogs romped around the Serpentine. Until one dachshund tried to dig into the rabbit enclosure and another emerged from the water with a Canada goose between its teeth. "They wanted to ban me from every park in London," he said, grinning broadly. As a top breeder he progressed to judging. But in the post-war Kennel Club, dominated by tweedy captains, a former warrant officer was expected to know his place. He worked long hours for a few quid and the equivalent of a pat on the head.
Times have changed. Dog shows, once very British, are booming worldwide. Yet the pedigree of all-breed British judges is coveted abroad. Invitations for Haj's services come with air tickets and reservations in five-star hotels.
There have been hairy moments. In Buenos Aires there was almost a riot when the results of a show were announced. In Palermo Haj was trailed to the gents by a shadowy figure upset by the ranking given to his saluki. "They kept trying to tell me he was in the Mafia. I told him to bugger off." And he did.
"Maybe they were winding me up," mused Haj. Maybe they were. Or maybe the growl of a near-octogenarian British dog judge still counts for something. Even in the most unlikely corners of a foreign field.Reuse content