Lead dogs: Who will win the Iditarod?

Posted: Friday, March 05, 2010

As the 2010 Iditarod Sled Dog Race gets under way this weekend, many mushing fans have put together their lists of who they think may win. But, with sled dog racing, there are no certainties.

Training conditions leading up to the race, weather during the event, and just plain luck, must all be factored into making a prognostication. This year is particularly tough, since the winter has been far from good, as evident by the rain falling outside my window as I type this.

Snow was thin across the state all season, so while this has leveled the playing field for most competitors, it also likely means that many may have incurred a few more dog injuries than is typical for this time of year. Thin snow typically means sore wrists or hurt shoulders from so little cushion under the dogs' pounding feet.

As to what will happen during the race itself, watching the Iron Dog snowmachine race that occurs the week before the Iditarod is a good way to get an idea of the conditions that mushers could encounter when they venture onto mostly the same trail. All indications point to some rough terrain for this year's race.

Scott Davis of Soldotna, a seven-time winner of the Iron Dog, scratched from this year's race. As to his reason why, he stated "It was as bad as I've ever seen it," he said. "It's going to be one of those survival years."

Trying to take all these things into consideration, as well as adding my own firsthand knowledge from racing against some of these teams, or seeing my wife, Colleen -- who is also in this year's Iditarod -- race against some of these teams, here are my best guesses of who may be at the front of the pack when the mushers make it to Nome, with a brief explanation of why I think so.

1. Jeff King. Quite simply, his team has won every distance race he's entered this season, including the extremely demanding Cooper Basin 300 and Tustumena 200.

Also, last month, King's handler drove this team to a first place finish in the Denali Doubles Invitational -- a 265-mile event involving some of the most elite distance mushers in the sport. Not only did they win, but the dogs looked as good at the finish lines as they did at the starts.

This combined with King's accumulation of top 10 finishes in the Iditarod over the past two decades, simply makes it seem like he'll have the team to beat this year.

2. Lance Mackey. Last year I said I thought Lance wouldn't win because for a time he had a one-in-a-lifetime team, but that team was starting to age out. He proved me wrong and made it three in a row.

This year, Mackey's hasn't done much in terms of who he is. He placed third in the Kuskokwim 300, he was sixth in the T-200 and second in the Quest. No wins. He could be moving past his peak, or he could just be saving himself for his fourth Iditarod victory in a row.

3. Dallas Seavey. This may seem like an odd choice considering he has only run three Iditarods, finishing 51st in 2005, 41st in 2006 and sixth last year. However, you have to put those finishes in context.

His first two Iditarods, he was running puppy teams for his father, Mitch, in an effort to help the old man build more race veterans for future races. Last year was his first year running dogs for himself, and he showed what he could do with them.

Dallas is more than experienced from growing up as a third-generation musher, but he is also driven to make his own name in the sport, and this may be the year he moves a little closer to doing just that.

4. Sebastian Schnuelle. While last season he won the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest, it still took the world by surprise when Schnuelle came in second in the Iditarod. It was a surprise because it was only his fifth time competing in the race to Nome, but equally it was how he ran that shocked everyone.

Schnuelle further evolved a strategy -- pioneered by other mushers including Robert Sorlie and Lance Mackey -- of running longer and slower than the competition, with fewer hours of rest between runs.

The theory is that like a human slowly going for long walk, the dogs have more energy at the end, and they receive less injuries than if they were constantly sprinting shorter distances, such as from checkpoint to checkpoint.

In talking to some other professional mushers during the training season, it seems like more than few have adopted this same strategy this season, but Schnuelle, already having dogs used to this style of running, may pull to the front of the pack again this season. It just may not be until the end of the race, but that's the only place standings really matter anyway.

5. Hugh Neff. This is one of the toughest mushers in the game today and he just keeps getting more dialed into the strategy for distance racing success each season. This shouldn't really be a surprise; he has run the Yukon Quest and Iditarod back-to-back in the same year, more than any other musher.

He was only 15th last year, but this was because he was stymied when the ruff of his parka blew off in a fierce minus 40 degree wind storm. Neff sustained substantial frostbite to his face, which affected -- and eventually slowed -- his overall performance.

This year, if he has better sewing on his parka, maybe he will succeed at cracking the coveted top 10.

6. John Baker. This Kotzebue-based musher has finished in the top 10, 10 out of the 14 times he's run the race, and finished third last year proving when things get stormy on the coast, it doesn't bother him a bit.

Baker also won the Kuskokwim 300 this year, which is always a good barometer of who will win, or at least place well, in the Iditarod.

7. Mitch Seavey. Always a tough annual competitor, this Sterling-based musher has accrued eight top 10 finishes in the last 12 years, and he just sent several dogs on the Yukon Quest with other mushers. He hasn't won the Iditarod since 2004, but I know he is eager to claim another victory in the Last Great Race.

8. Martin Buser. He has already shown four times that he has what it takes to win the Last Great Race, but hasn't shown a lot as of late. Still, Buser has always done his best in years where the trail is hard and fast, so perhaps this skinny snow year will be right for his team's speed to prevail.

9. Hans Gatt. Winner of this year's Yukon Quest, this White Horse-based musher is the only person to beat Lance Mackey in a 1,000-mile race in the last four years. He always has a beautiful looking dog team, and should make the Top 10 with no problem. He could do even better in the standings than where I've placed him.

10. Paul Gebhardt or Aily Zirkle. I know, it seems unfair to pick two people for the last spot, but I just couldn't decide between these two talented mushers. Historically Gebhardt has done better in the Iditarod, twice finishing in second place, but I know from training on the same trails as him, that getting to the Iditarod without any dog injuries has been challenging this year.

As to Zirkle, she is hungry to make it into the top 10 of Iditarod. Also, this year she has been putting three teams in nearly every race her kennel has competed in, so she may have a very large pool of dogs to chose from to get 16 that could push her to the front of the pack.

Have some picks of your own? Visit the Clarion's Facebook page at www.facebook.com/peninsulaclarion and share your thoughts on the contenders in the Last Great Race.

Joseph Robertia can be reached at joseph.robertia@peninsulaclarion.com.

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