Three Kenai Peninsula mushers have signed up for the debut of the Sheep Mountain 150 sled dog race and said they are looking forward to evaluating their teams to see which dogs will do best at fleecing the competition and which should be sheered from the primary team.
"I think it will be a good tune-up for mushers to use to prepare for more intense races later in the season," said race organizer Zack Steer.
At 150 miles long, the race, which will start at the Sheep Mountain Lodge on the Glenn Highway between Palmer and Glennallen in mid-December, could serve as a test for unproven dogs.
Steer, an experienced musher who placed second in the 2004 Yukon Quest, said he has used the race trail though the Talkeetna Mountains for his own training the past five years.
"It's a good mix of flat stretches and hills," he said.
Also, despite more sleet than snow here on the peninsula, Steer said the weather conditions have been better to the north and he is expecting good racing conditions.
"It warmed up to about 35 (degrees) here, but it actually helped by consolidating the snow. Most of the trail is over 3,000 feet, so the snow we have is holding, and we'll only get more from here," he said.
Steer added that he is happy with the amount of interest in the inaugural race, which includes rookies and seasoned professionals.
"We have a full field of 30 teams, including two past Iditarod champions (Dean Osmar and Jeff King), and 10 more mushers on the waiting list," he said.
Osmar said he knows Steer personally and is expecting him to put on a good race.
"He's a musher, so he'll be knowledgeable in getting it organized. I expect it will be a well-marked and well-groomed trail," Osmar said.
Lance Mackey of Kasilof said he's excited about competing in the new race.
"I've got four 11-dog teams at the moment, three of which are really competitive, so I'm looking forward to using the race to see which dogs will make the cut for the other races I'm planning on doing this season," he said.
Mackey is an Iditarod veteran and frequent front-runner in mid-distance races like the Knik 200 which he won in 2003 and the Tustumena 200, in which he placed third this year.
Mackey is familiar with the location of the race, having trained there in the 2002-03 season when snow was scant on the Kenai Peninsula, but he said this will be his first time running on the trails competitively.
"It should offer a little bit of everything. I'm expecting it to be like a combination of the Cooper Basin and the T-200. There will be a few hills that could make people pucker up, but it shouldn't offer anything we haven't seen here on the peninsula," he said.
Mackey will have two teams in the race, his own and another driven by Jason Young, who has not only handled for Mackey for the last two years, but is also a seasoned musher who won the Tustumena 100 in 2002.
"I'm excited about the race," Young said. "It's a good long race for that time of year, when most other races are only running 50 or 100 miles, but it has some good long rests, too, so it should be good training for so early in the season."
Young said he is looking forward to the Sheep Mountain 150 because unlike most handlers who only run puppy teams, Mackey has enough dogs moving into their prime for Young to drive a competitive team in the race.
"I'm in a unique position to be a handler and not have a team of yearlings or misfits to run," he said.
The Sheep Mountain 150 is scheduled to start at the Sheep Mountain Lodge at noon Dec. 18. There will be three legs of approximately 50 miles with two mandatory layovers of five hours each separating them.
For more information on the race, contact Zack Steer at (907) 745-5121.
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