NEW YORK – So there I stood early Monday morning, ankle-deep in cardigan Welsh corgis, asking anyone within earshot an increasingly puzzling question:

Have you seen Porter?

“Who?” replied the small knot of Westminster Dog Show handlers, all about to enter Ring 5 in their business attire and sensible shoes and pockets filled with enough bait to coat a large pizza.

“Porter!” I persisted. “He’s a cardigan Welsh corgi from Maine and he’s supposed to be here for his first ever Westminster appearance – except he isn’t.”

Shrugs everywhere.

Porter, the 17-month-old rookie who only last week was posing for his pre-Westminster photo in the living room of his owner, Adrienne Harkavy of Cape Elizabeth, was a no-show.

“It’s his toe,” Harkavy later told me by telephone from her home, where she’d planned to watch her pride and joy compete in the world’s largest canine show. “We’re very disappointed.”

You and me both.

“I think what happened was, he got bit by a spider at the hotel,” explained Porter’s professional handler, Juli Lacey-Black of the eastern Maine town of Mariaville.

Either that, she continued, or Porter cut his foot on a chunk of salt in the parking lot outside the Red Roof Inn in New Jersey where he encamped with Lacey-Black Sunday night.

“His whole leg swelled up, and luckily I was able to bring him to a friend who’s a vet — and he looked at him and gave him a shot,” she said.

Which helped — but not enough.

“He’s much better, but he’s still a little bit off,” said Lacey-Black. “And we won’t show him when he’s off.”

Tough break, Porter.

But the show must go on.

Take it from a first-time visitor to Westminster (or any other dog show, for that matter): This is a universe unto its own.

It’s a world of blow driers and spray bottles, secret shampoo formulas and teeth cleaners, clippers and shavers, brushes that go this way and combs that go that, powdered chalk that can make a dog’s coat whiter and colored rubber bands that can make a miniature poodle’s ears look . . . just plain wrong.

And hair. Lots of hair.

Under rainy skies Monday morning, the first of more than 2,700 dogs representing 187 breeds from all 50 states and beyond converged on Pier 92 and Pier 94 overlooking the Hudson River.

They came by bus, taxi and the occasional limo to compete first by breed, then by group and finally for the coveted “Best in Show,” live Tuesday evening on the USA Network.

Fly, an Australian shepherd owned by Clara Gardner of Rockland, was among the first through the door at 7 a.m.

“Right now, I’m cleaning out all the hair underneath her feet,” explained handler Laura Liebenow of Greenfield, Mass., as she clipped away at Fly’s already perfect paws. “After I get her all trimmed, I’ll be blowing water in.”

Come again?

“Like this,” Liebenow said, flipping on a blow-drier with one hand and furiously pumping a spray bottle point-blank at Fly with another. “So literally, you’re blowing water right in. See?”

It helps fluff Fly up.

Alas, it made no difference.

Fly, for the record, had it tough: Along with facing 42 other Aussie shepherds competing for best of breed (the winner would head crosstown to Monday evening’s herding group finals in the limelight of Madison Square Garden), she drew the nationally famous judge James “Jimmy” Moses of Wentzville, Mo.

The same Jimmy Moses who was profiled in Sunday’s New York Times under the headline “Judge for Westminster Dog Show Dismisses Doubts About Fairness.”

Long story short, Fly didn’t make the cut.

“It’s all over but for the crying,” said owner Gardner as Moses dismissed Liebenow and Fly and the other also-rans from the ring.

“But no crying today,” Gardner added less than convincingly. “I’m just happy she was here.”

Fly, head still high, trotted back to her grooming table and crate, known in dog-show speak as her “bench.”

There, a deluge of spectators (at $25 per head) would spend the rest of the day wandering among the endless rows of corgis, whippets, long coat Chihuahuas, Yorkshire terriers, Scottish deerhounds and at least one snowball of a bichon frise with a somewhat creepy thing for eye contact that will freeze you in your tracks.

The owners and handlers are, for the most part, a cordial bunch — no easy feat, considering the time, money and monumental will power it takes to accrue enough dog-show points and championships just to get here.

But once in awhile, the sheer pressure of it all boils over.

“I hate that judge!” shouted one woman without warning as the competition wound down late Monday afternoon. “I said I’d never show to him again — and now I never will!”

Not knowing the proper etiquette here, I treaded lightly.

“My, my . . . what kind of dog is this?” I asked.

“A Polish lowland sheepdog,” replied the woman’s (much calmer) husband.

“Oh really? What’s his name?”

“Loser!” bellowed the woman.

“Smokey,” smiled the man.

Perhaps I should just move along . . .

“It’s my fault!” lamented the woman, still audible over all the barking. “We bring in a world-class dog all the way from Germany and I . . . I just blew it!”

Funny thing about Westminster — the more uptight the owners and handlers get, the more the dogs look like they couldn’t care less.

Fly, after all, is on her way home to Rockland and the same old welcome-home belly rub she always gets from Vern Clark, Gardner’s husband.

And Porter, motel spiders or no motel spiders, will be back on the sore paw in no time.

And lest we all wallow in their early trips back to the snowbound north, there’s still hope for Maine’s dog lovers: Today’s entries will include home-state favorite Quincy, the Newfoundland, and golden retrievers Lush, Henry and Tassel.

I have but one request:

Please – and I’m begging here – no more rubber bands.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

[email protected]

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