Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Backing the Dark Horses

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race is only a few days away, and of course many in Alaska are speculating about who will win the most famous, and second-toughest race in Alaska. Of course the smart money is riding on the current stars of long distance sled dog racing. Lance Mackey is coming off his fourth Yukon Quest championship, and has already proved that he can win both of Alaska's major long-distance sled dog races in the same year. This year he would like to repeat last year's unbelievable performance, and even add a win the All Alaskan Sweepstakes to take home a triple crown.

Lance is certainly one of my favorites. His dogs adore him and the combination of the right dogs with the right driver has already set the mushing world on its ear. With medical problems likely to force him into an early retirement, I'd be delighted to see Lance surf into his retirement on a wave of glory unlikely to ever be bested.

Lance isn't the only former champion on the I'rod trail this year, and each has his or own camp followers rightfully singing the praises of mushers and teams who have rightfully earned their respect and even awe. While the mainstream media seems to be convinced that Mackey's only competition will be the likes of Jeff King, Martin Buser, or Mitch Seavey, former champions, they seem to be ignoring a LOT of really excellent mushers and teams that also have a very realistic chance to win this race.

Of the 96 mushers signed up for the 2008 I'rod, I see at least 20 who have a more than reasonable chance to win. Since I'm killing a bit of time on the blog this afternoon, I think I'll kill it by sharing my thoughts on some of these "dark horse" teams.

My favorite dark horse musher and team is Aliy Zirkle, of SP Kennel. I'll admit that is largely because Aliy and her husband Allen are good friends and I've sponsored their kennel for several years. I'm not entirely blinded by personal loyalty, though. Aliy's team in this year's I'rod will include many dogs that have already proven they can beat Lance Mackey's dogs in a challenging race. Many of them were on Allen Moore's team when he won this year's Copper Basin 300. Heck, I've known many of these SP dogs since there were wee little puppies and they are always impressive. I rate Aliy's chances very highly not just because she is my friend, but because she is my friend running a team of excellent, well cared for and proven racing sled dogs.

Ken Anderson is another dark horse musher that is quite capable of winning this race, and he's hungry. He finished the Yukon Quest only half an hour behind Lance, and as they said in the days of old wild west, he was "gunning for the man". Even before the first checkpoint he was calcclating the 'split' between his time and that of the eventual winner. Ken's team has been racing well all season, he has plenty of experience running the I'rod, and the man ain't no dummy. I would rate his chances as being pretty darned good.

It seems like a lot of the media pundits take glee in describing Rick Swenson, the only five-time champion, as being "over the hill." I wouldn't be so quick to write him off. Although I don't know Rick very well, that's mostly because there just isn't time to stop and chat when you're out on the trail running dogs, and that's where I encounter him most often. He maintains and runs most of the trails used by many mushers south of Chena Hot Springs Road, and I surely hope I'm not the only one to lay a little gas money on him. Having decent trails to train on is a very valuable privilege.

Some describe Swenson as opinionated and pugnacious. My limited experience is that he is straight-forward in speech and action, and expects the same of others. There isn't any doubt that he's a hard worker who earns his life rewards the old-fashioned way - by working for them. He strikes me as a man well suited to Alaska, and well suited to the Last Great Race. Besides, I like the way his dogs run.

Hans Gatt is another dark horse that I think could win this thing. Hans has done exceptionally well in the Yukon Quest, and not at all badly in previous I'rods. In the past he has run both races back to back. Tis year he didn't run the Quest and consequently seems to have dropped off the radar screen. This leads me to think that he is focused entirely on the Iditarod and he and his team of great racing dogs are quite capable of a head-turning preformance.

As I wrote earlier, there are easily 20 or more teams capable of winning this year's Iditarod. There are hundreds of variables that will contribute toward the final outcome. Weather and trail conditions, dog and musher experience, dog and musher breeding, good and bad luck, and the judgment and character of the mushers are just a few. I have no doubt that this year's Iditarod will be an exciting race to follow. When all has been said and done, at the end of the trail there can be only 1 champion, and I guarantee that champion will gain the title the old fashioned way. She or he will have worked hard to earn it.

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