ANCHORAGE, Alaska Sled dog racing fans crowded downtown Anchorage to get autographs and photos of their favorite mushers competing in the 2004 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Saturday.
The ceremonial start in the 1,100-mile race from Anchorage to Nome the longest sled dog race in the world is held each year on the first Saturday in March. The event is a raucous affair where mushing fans line the start three-deep to give the dog teams a big send-off.
Suzanne Jammin came all the way from Washington, D.C., to stand next to four-time Iditarod winner Martin Buser of Big Lake and get a photograph with him before the start. Buser is running in his 21st Iditarod.
''We have followed him since the beginning,'' said Jammin, who recently moved from Alaska and acknowledges to being homesick.
Buser, who came in fourth last year and won in 2002, said he feels better than ever this year.
''I'm just getting good,'' he said.
The Iditarod, now in its 32nd year, commemorates a 674-mile relay race from Nenana to Nome in February 1925 where dog teams successfully delivered serum to prevent an outbreak of diphtheria among children.
A record 87 teams are competing this year. The purse is more than $700,000, with the winner getting $69,000 and a new Dodge pickup truck worth $41,410. About one-third of this year's record field are rookies.
It normally takes top teams nine to 10 days to go the 1,100 miles from Anchorage to Nome, but race officials are expecting a faster race this year. Only Buser has done it in less than nine days. He holds the course record of eight days, 22 hours and 46 minutes, set in 2002.
Buser said his team this year is a lot like the 2002 team.
''Quiet, confident, even, deep and balanced,'' he said.
Three-time Iditarod champion Jeff King scoffed at that description, saying he got a good look at Buser's team during a shorter race earlier this season.
''There was nothing that impressed me,'' said King, of Denali Park, who was third in 2000, 2001 and 2003 and will be looking for his fourth win.
Four-time winner Doug Swingley of Lincoln, Mont., is back after taking last year off. He and Buser will be looking to join Rick Swenson of Two Rivers as the Iditarod's only five-time winner.
Swenson, who hasn't won since 1991, said he's gone back to basics this year, focusing less on himself and more on the dogs.
''I've tried every gimmick in the world to win this,'' Swenson said. ''The most important thing is in front of the sled.''
Ramy Brooks of Healy, who came in second in 2002 and 2003, will be looking for his first win.
''I'm shooting for that first win,'' Brooks said, wearing a teal-green mushing suit with yellow and orange flames up the sleeve.
Last year's winner, Robert Sorlie of Norway, is not racing.
The serious racing begins Sunday at the official restart in Willow, moved 25 miles north this year from race headquarters in Wasilla because of icy conditions. Conditions farther up the trail are very good, especially compared with last year when the restart had to be moved hundreds of miles north to Fairbanks because of a lack of snow.
Alaska mushers, as well as those from Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming, are in the 2004 race. Mushers from Canada, Italy, Germany and Norway also are competing.
Nancy Jostad of Hoboken, N.J., came to Alaska especially for the start of the race. She waited in line to have her picture taken with Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers, one of 17 female racers in the 2004 field.
''I'm so excited,'' Jostad said. ''Women rock.''
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