Lack of snow and unseasonable weather conditions have left the fate of the Kenai Peninsula's only Iditarod-qualifying sled dog race in question.
Well, question no more. After a one-week postponement, the 2001 Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race is officially a go, sporting a field of 23 mushers and a purse of $25,000.
"The race is on," race secretary Nancy Kitchen said.
Of the 23 mushers, 20 will compete for the $10,000 first-place money in the 200-mile professional division, the remaining three will compete in the 100-mile amateur division.
A few changes have been made to the race itinerary, including the cancellation of the ceremonial start held in Kenai due to the poor snow conditions. That change also prompted the start time to be pushed ahead from 2 p.m. to 11 a.m. at the Tustumena Lodge at Mile 111 of the Sterling Highway in Kasilof.
"The schedule of events for Friday remains the same," Kitchen said. "Between noon and 5 the mushers can check in and get the vet checks done."
The mushers' meeting is at 5:30 p.m. with a public meet-the-mushers dinner around 6. The drawing for the mushers' starting positions will be held after dinner.
The professional division sports one of the flashiest T-200 casts ever. Defending race champion Jeff King of Denali Park, a three-time Iditarod champion, will return to the race along with '98 and '99 winner Ramey Smyth of Big Lake. Five-time Iditarod champion Rick Swenson, who finished second to King in the Kuskokwim 300 Jan. 21, also joins the field for his first attempt on the hilly T-200 course through the Caribou Hills.
Kasilof musher Paul Gebhardt, who set the course record in his 1996 win, and Tim Osmar of Clam Gulch, whose five T-200 victories make him the winningest musher in the 17-year history of the race, bring additional star power to the field, which also includes Iditarod veterans Jon Little of Kasilof, James Wheeler and John Bramante of Soldotna, Gus Guenther of Clam Gulch, Russell Lane of Point Hope and Raymie Redington of Knik.
"We are very pleased with the field," Kitchen said. "Last year we had 17 or 18 teams, so this year we are very pleased indeed.
"We have 12 Kenai Peninsula mushers in this race. Probably the largest peninsula field we have had in the last few years."
The other peninsula mushers are Wendy Warren of Kasilof, Jason Cameron of Homer, Jason Mackey of Ninilchik and Lance Mackey of Kasilof, along with Steve Carrick of Castle Hill, Australia, and Wendy Smith of Leominster, England, both of whom have been training in the Caribou Hills.
Osmar, who will be running both the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod this year, is planning on running seven of his own dogs and seven from the kennel of his father, Dean, in a team that will most likely make up his Iditarod squad.
"I am going to play it by ear," Osmar said. "The main idea is to get used to some of my dad's dogs that I haven't run much this year."
With all of the big names and the growing sponsorship and purse of the Tustumena 200, is there possibility of the T-200 becoming a major mid-distance race?
"For sure," Osmar said. "With that much competition you will draw attention to the race for sure."
Osmar said that the quality of this year's field makes predicting a winner difficult.
"You have to think about Swenson and King, maybe Paul (Gebhardt), it's just really hard to say," he said. "Smyth is always tough, and there are probably people I am not even thinking of. It is definitely going to be a good race."
Peninsula Clarion ©2013. All Rights Reserved.