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Is Lance a three-time charmer?: Deep field will challenge defending champion

Posted: Friday, March 06, 2009

As the 2009 Iditarod Sled Dog Race gets under way this weekend, many mushing fans around the state, and even Outside, have put together their lists of who they think may win. As an Outdoors reporter and a musher myself, I thought my own list, along with those of the Matthew Carroll, the Clarion's sports reporter, and Jon Little, a professional musher and mushing journalist, may help fill in the blanks for anyone that hasn't compiled their own Top 10 list.

Jon Little's picks:

1. Jeff King. So close so many times.

2. Mitch Seavey. He seems to have things increasingly figured out.

3. Lance Mackey. The magic may continue three years in a row, but may not.

4. Paul Gebhardt. Could easily win the race.

5. Martin Buser. Hard one to read.

6. Sebastian Schnuelle. Dark horse, but not much of one. He had perfect obedience and relationship with his dogs in the Quest.

7. Hugh Neff. He will crack the top ten this year. That team is just plain tough.

8. Ken Anderson. He could finish farther up in the standings than eighth.

9. Ramey Smyth. Too good of a track record, but an 11-year-old dog in lead?

10. John Baker. Always a top-10 finisher.

Matthew Carroll's picks:

1. Ken Anderson.

2. Lance Mackey.

3. Mitch Seavey.

4. Jeff King.

5. Hans Gatt.

6. Paul Gebhardt.

7. Martin Buser.

8. Sebastian Schnuelle.

9. Ed Iten.

10. Rick Swenson.

Of course, with sled dog racing, there are no certainties, and it isn't always the best team that wins, as Lance Mackey made clear last year, when he snuck out of a checkpoint in order to beat a sleeping Jeff King, who had the superior team at that stage of the race. Also, training conditions leading up to the race, weather during the event, and just plain luck, must all be factored into making a prognostication.

That being said, 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. Hans Gatt. I think this may be this Austrian's year, as much as it pains me to say so. Just a few weeks back Gatt, who now resides in Atlin, British Columbia, pulled out of the Yukon Quest while only halfway through, despite running near enough to the lead that winning the race was a distinct possibility.

However, unlike most mushers that scratch because their team has suffered some misfortune, Gatt pulled the plug because as he put it, "They looked too beautiful to continue," and he wanted to save the dogs for Iditarod.

In my opinion, this was a major disrespect to the Quest, a race which is considered by many mushers to be tougher than the Iditarod, yet has always loomed in the shadow of its more famous counterpart. Also, to use a piscatorial cliche from my youth, "you don't leave fish to find fish," so Gatt is really risking his paycheck for the season by not finishing what he started with the Quest.

But, to be fair, I saw Gatt's team in Dawson City, where he made the decision, and his dogs did look better than most of the other teams around them. So as a strategic decision, by pulling out halfway, his dogs likely didn't peak too early and may be ready to reach the pinnacle of their abilities as he runs the Iditarod.

2. Jeff King. As already stated, King had the superior team last season, but he wanted to toy with Mackey by tailing him for miles, rather than passing and pulling away from him when he had the chance.

As a result, the two were too close together, too near to the finish line, and Mackey, as he so eloquently put it, caught King with his pants down. The embarrassment of this wily Mackey maneuver, combined with months of "you snooze, you lose" jokes, should bring a more focused King to this year's Iditarod, and while I picked a hungry Gatt to win, King reaching the burled arch first would not surprise me.

3. Lance Mackey. It's always tough to bet against "Sir Lance Wins-A-Lot," but I don't think this is going to be his year. He has capitalized on his once-in-a-lifetime team, but some of those dogs, such as Zorro, who was injured in a snowmachine accident at the end of last season's All-Alaska Sweepstakes race, are starting to move past their peak. As such, I think Mackey will still be near the front this season, but not in first at the end.

4. Mitch Seavey. Always a tough annual competitor, this Sterling-based musher beat the best of the best during the All-Alaska Sweepstakes last season, and claimed victory in this year's Kuskokwim 300. Seavey also thrives in tough trail conditions, which their may be plenty of during this year's Iditarod, due to recent and heavy snowfalls in many locations along the course.

5. Hugh Neff. While Neff hasn't really stood out in the Iditarod since capturing "Rookie of the Year" honors back in 2004, based on his performance in the '09 Yukon Quest, this may be his year. Neff placed second overall in the Quest (only 5 minutes behind the winner), but those watching the race closely know he incurred a two-hour time penalty for briefly taking a road rather than sticking to the trail which ran in the ditch next to it. Without this penalty, Neff would have won by a significant amount. He has a strong team this year, and it may show again during Iditarod.

6. Sebastian Schnuelle. This German-born musher with a wild hairdo was the man who bested Neff in the Quest, and he did so almost effortlessly. I saw Schnuelle at several checkpoints along the Quest, and he legitimately was just running his dogs without pushing them hard. In fact, I felt he really only started "racing" in the last 200-300 miles of the race.

While this alone would be a reason Schnuelle may end up in the Iditarod's Top 10, he also had a second team in the Quest, ran by Mark Sleightholme, who placed 11th and with 11 dogs (one of the largest finishing teams in the race). Between Schnuelle's own team and that driven by Sleightholme, he should have no problem picking 16 dogs capable of making it to Nome ahead of much of the competition.

7. Martin Buser. Despite literally running over my mother-in-law while on a training run at the end of the Quest, I'm still picking this Big Lake-based musher to place in the Iditarod Top 10. He has already shown four times that he has what it takes to win the Last Great Race, but it will be interesting to see if having used the Quest as a training run before this year's Iditarod will help him, as it has Mackey, or hurt Buser, who is nearly 20 years older than the current champ.

8. Ken Anderson. A winner of multiple mid-distance sled dog races, but a victory in one of the state's two 1,000-mile sled dog races has always eluded Anderson. Last season he came closer than ever in both though, when he placed second in the Quest and fourth in the Iditarod. He sat out this year's Quest to focus his effort on Iditarod, time will soon tell if it was worth it.

9. Paul Gebhardt. This Kasilof-based musher has on several occasions been close enough to smell an Iditarod victory, but he has frequently had to settle for a second place finish. Sadly, last season he lost Governor -- one of his best lead dogs -- in a freak accident, a blow which can take a musher years to come back from, both emotionally and in race standings.

10. Sven Haltmann. Every Iditarod pick 'em list should have one dark horse, and Haltmann is mine. My wife has raced Haltmann on several occasions in mid-distance races around the state and we've both noticed he is a very athletic musher, rarely taking a break from kicking and ski-poling until the finish line. He also has an incredibly strong dog team, that often looks as good at the end as it did at the finish.

He hasn't won many races other than the Don Bower's 300 back in 2007, but he's always a front runner in every race he competes in. Last season he finished the Iditarod in 36th place, as a rookie, but I think he learned a lot about 1,000 races from the experience, and this year he may put the knowledge to good use.

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



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