The largest and most competitive field in the 19-year history of the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race will take to the trails Saturday vying for the $10,000 winner's check.
Twenty-eight mushers from two states and Canada have signed on to run in the 2002 T-200, one of a handful of Iditarod-qualifying races run around the state in the weeks leading up to the March start of the Last Great Race.
This year's T-200 kicks off with a 10 a.m. ceremonial start near Kenai Chrysler Center and follows a short route up Marathon Road. The official race start is at 3 p.m. at the Tustumena Lodge on the Sterling Highway in Kasilof.
From there, mushers will take off for the Caribou Hills on a trail that runs approximately 100 miles to the Clam Shell Lodge in Clam Gulch. After a mandatory six-hour layover, mushers and their teams will trace their path back to the Tustumena Lodge, finishing sometime in the afternoon or evening Sunday, depending on trail conditions and weather.
Kasilof musher Jon Little, one of 15 Iditarod veterans in the race field, said the recent snow is likely to enhance already good trail conditions.
"It's not bad at the lower elevations, but as soon as you start climbing, it's real good," said Little, who, as he usually does, will be using the T-200 as a training run for a team of largely untested yearlings. "It's going to be a great trail, and probably fast."
Little noted that trail conditions should heat up an already competitive field that includes: defending champion Jeff King, winner of the last two T-200s; Ramey Smyth, who won the race in 1999; local favorites Mitch Seavey and Tim Osmar, the winningest T-200 musher ever; along with perennial Iditarod contenders Vern Halter and Bill Cotter.
"There's many fast teams," said Little, who added that King is probably the man to beat. "But there will be teams who can (compete). Smyth and Osmar will be fast. And Cotter's not coming down just for the scenery. ... This is turning into a hot little race."
Count Seavey, a Sterling resident, among the mushers not just in the race for the scenery, although, he said, "that's always a side benefit." Fresh off a victory in last weekend's Klondike 300, Seavey said he's looks forward to his return to the T-200, a race he has not run in several years.
"I think the Tustumena is a great race," he said. "It's right at home, and they've made some improvements that make it easier on the dogs."
The Iditarod veteran said the $10,000 first-place money also is a draw.
"If a guy could get that, it would make for a nice weekend," he said. "But there's some other guys racing there who will be looking at that prize, too."
Seavey did not speculate on who he thinks might win, although he said there are several teams in the field capable of claiming the top prize.
"I don't look for Jeff (King) to be bringing up the rear," he said of the three-time Iditarod champion from Denali Park, who has won both the Kuskokwim 300 and Knik 200 already this season. "And Ramey Smyth is really tough in 200-mile races. But I like to think that we're tough, too. We're bringing a competitive team, and we hope to win the thing."
Dean Osmar of Kasilof, who won the Iditarod in 1984, will be watching from the sidelines as his son Tim goes for a record sixth T-200 victory this weekend. The veteran racer agreed that King and Smyth should be among the front-runners, but offered no guarantee.
"It's a tremendous field," he said. "These guys are favorites, but it's sure not a given that they'll win it."
Tim Osmar figures he will be in the mix for the race's top prize, too -- with a little help from his father. He will be pulled by a team comprised largely of dogs used by Dean in his third-place finish at a stage race in Oregon earlier this month. Among them is a pair of 3-year-old leaders, Shark and Fancy, that Dean says are "as good as I've ever run."
The younger Osmar, who last year became the fifth musher to compete in both the Yukon Quest and Iditarod in the same year, is gearing up for another double dose of long-distance competitive mushing this year. He will defend his Quest title in early February, before hitting the Iditarod Trail again in March.
"I've got a pretty good feeling about (the T-200)," Tim said. "The dogs are all healthy and they came back (from Oregon) in good shape. I know we've got a good team. We'll just have to see."
King, who was traveling to the peninsula on Thursday, was unavailable for comment. But his wife, Donna, said he is expecting some competition in this year's race.
"He's in good spirits and excited about this race," she said by phone from her Denali Park home. "He likes the trail and the community and the people there."
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