Mitch struck it rich! Mitch Seavey that is. The Sterling-based musher and 2004 Iditarod champion came from behind late Friday night to claim victory and $100,000 in the centennial re-running of the All Alaska Sweepstakes sled dog race.
"No one can say with 100 percent certainty they're going to win, but we came knowing it was a distinct possibility. I wouldn't have wanted to be a team trying to beat this one," a still trail-weary Seavey said from Nome on Saturday afternoon.
Unofficially, Seavey crossed under the Burled Arch to finish at 11:29 p.m. In all, he made the 408-mile run from Nome to Candle and back again in 61 hours, 29 minutes, 45 seconds, shattering the previous race record set by John "Iron Man" Johnson Sweepstakes for his 74-hour, 14-minute, 37-second finish in 1910.
Seavey's win also made it clear that there were very experienced mushers with supremely conditioned dog teams competing in the race, other than past Iditarod champions Jeff King of Denali Park and Lance Mackey of Fairbanks. These latter two mushers battled it out in the final days of the 2008 Iditarod, which led to many pre-Sweepstakes stories predicting the same finish.
"From a media standpoint, they always report on the winner of the last race, and that's all they'll talk about, but there's a lot more going on in this sport. I've beaten Jeff and Lance before and can do it again because we have that type of team and that type of kennel, but they're friends of mine and beating them is not what I think about when I'm out there. I just race and try to do our best," he said.
Seavey ended up finishing 10 minutes ahead of King, who claimed second place, and several hours in front of Mackey, who finished in third place. Adding to Seavey's accomplishment is the fact that he won with one of the smallest dog teams in the competition. Only he, and Fred Mo Napoka of Tuluksak ran 10-dog teams, while King and Mackey both opted to take 13-dog teams, and at least one musher ran a 16-dog string.
Seavey said he made the decision based the race's unique rules which did not allow mushers to drop tired, sick or injured dogs. Instead, mushers had to either carry these dogs in their sled bags, or pull over and camp until the dog was able to continue.
"Bringing 10 dogs was a quality standard decision. I brought only dogs that I knew could run that distance and at a fast speed. There were no question marks. Nine of them were dogs I finished Iditarod with, and I added one older dog that I knew was good and reliable that had gone up the (Iditarod) trail with one of my puppy teams," he said.
Seavey only ended up bagging one of the dogs he brought, and it was only for the last 50 miles of the race. As such, he said he was very pleased with the team's overall performance.
"They're all superstars. Especially Payton and Ditka, two 3-year old siblings that basically led the whole thing. They were phenomenal," he said.
Winning dog races takes more than a good dog team, though. It also takes developing and carrying out an excellent race strategy, which Seavey said he had.
"It was an almost perfectly executed plan," he said referring to his strategy of resting his dogs earlier in the race and for longer periods of time than the competition, then making that time up by moving faster down the trail later in the race.
"It works for us. It made it look like Jeff and Lance were running away with it initially, but when and how much you rest always makes a big difference," Seavey said.
Seavey also attributed some of his success to another unique rule to the race which allowed mushers to have outside assistance while at checkpoints. Seavey had four experienced handlers, including son Danny Seavey, an Iditarod finisher himself, waiting for him at each stop.
"We had four good dog guys, so I'd go get something to eat and by the time I came back all the chores would be done and the dogs would already be sleeping," he said.
In addition to the prize money and sense of accomplishment from finishing first, Seavey said he had another reason he was happy he won.
"This was my only chance since they only run this race every 25 years. They next time it comes around I'll have to be in the touring class," he said.
For complete race standings, visit the race's Web site at www.allalaskasweepstakes.org.
Snowmobile injures dog in Iditarod champ Mackey's team
NOME (AP) A man on a snowmobile drove into the dog team driven by Iditarod champion Lance Mackey in the All Alaska Sweepstakes, seriously injuring a key animal in Mackey's kennel.
Mackey broke down in tears Saturday describing how a veteran race dog, Zorro, was injured as the animal rode in the sled's basket.
The snowmobile driver has not been identified.
Mackey, a Fairbanks musher, was in third place in the Sweepstakes at around midnight Friday just 20 miles from the finish line when two snowmobiles came up fast from behind.
"I was flashing them like mad with my headlamp," he said. "I was shining my headlamp right in his face, but they kept on coming at me. I jumped aside, and by 30 feet further up the trail, there was a snowmachine sitting on the middle of my sled."
The machine impaled the sled bag with its runners.
"Three or four dogs were sucked underneath and Zorro was trapped in the sled bag," Mackey said.
The accident happened several miles west of the Safety checkpoint. The driver who hit Mackey and his partner on the other machine helped Mackey right the mess, then left as Mackey continued on.
Mackey said his $3,000 sled, made by Canadian Hans Gatt, made it to Nome but was ruined. It was of no consequence compared to his dogs, he said.
"That's only material," he said. "I would give my life for my dogs. I can't make anyone know how important animals are to me."
By midday Saturday, Zorro was on a commercial flight to Pet Emergency, a veterinarian facility in Anchorage, for medical treatment. Zorro had broken ribs and perhaps internal injuries.
"If he lives, I don't think he is going to want to race to Nome again," Mackey said.
A team handler accompanied Zorro. Mackey remained in Nome with his team. Several other dogs had injuries, but they were not life threatening, Mackey said.
Mackey made a plea for race officials to keep snowmobiles away from the trail at the end of the race, a growing safety issue.
"Running from Safety to Front Street is almost suicidal," Mackey said. "I almost got hit on the way into Nome during Iditarod and then was almost hit half an hour later."
Safety Roadhouse, about 22 miles east of Nome, operates as a bar during the race and attracts spectators on snowmobiles. Mackey said he wanted to focus attention on trail safety.
The 9-year-old injured dog has been a star in the teams that won Alaska's two major long-distance races the last two years. Last year, Zorro became ill at White Mountain near the end of the Iditarod and did not get to finish the race.
Mackey contacted media in Nome on Saturday saying he wanted to give the snowmachine driver a chance to come forward "like a man and make it right."
"Just make it right. That's all I want. I don't bear him any ill will, but I want him to make it right."
He yelled at the snowmobile driver after the collision, Mackey said.
"I didn't give him a chance to say anything. I was saying things I wish now I hadn't said."
Zorro is the kennel's stud dog. If he dies, Mackey said, his future in sled dog racing is uncertain.
"My team's future, my personal future, my career, my whole life is in question," he told Nome Police Department officer Byron Redburn, who took a report in cooperation with Alaska State Troopers, who have jurisdiction.
Gregory Saclamana, a volunteer running the information line at All Alaska Sweepstakes headquarters in Nome, said race officials would not comment.
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