Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Looking at the Yukon Quest field.

Seriously Competitive Field for the Yukon Quest

In spite of the absence of last year's champion, Sebastian Schnuelle, the line-up for the 2010 Yukon Quest looks to be one of the most competitive in years.  I'll venture that one would be hard placed to pick a winner for the upcoming race.  During even-numbered years the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race starts in Fairbanks Alaska and traverses over 1,000 miles of serious, Interior Alaska and Yukon Territory terrain to end in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.  During odd-numbered years the race reverses course, traveling from Whitehorse to Fairbanks. 

Regardless of direction,  the Quest is considered by many to be a tougher race than the more famous Iditarod, and is also considered more 'true to the historical tradition' of dog mushing.  There are fewer checkpoints and longer runs between those checkpoints that do exist.  The Quest trail follows many of the old gold-rush freight and mail trails made famous by the stories of Jack London and poetry of Robert Service.  Starting almost a full month before the Iditarod, the Quest is a true mid-winter sled dog race, and the trails of the Interior are infamous for their weather related hazards.

Blizzards and white-out conditions are common on the summits, and the Quest trail goes right over the top of four of them, Rosebud Summit, Eagle Summit, American Summit and King Solomon's Dome.  When not climbing up and down mountains, the trail primarily follows river routes, where the coldest of winter air settles.  It is rare of Quest mushers to not have to endure temperatures of 40 degrees below zero (F) and colder.

Some complain that the Iditarod's popularity has turned it into something of a celebrity event, attracting "wannabes" who lease teams, train hard for a season, and then run the race as 'tourists' just to boast that they've done so.  Tourists aren't common on the Quest trail.  It's harsh conditions and relative lack of fame makes it a musher's race, attracting the most hard-core of the long distance sled dog racing crowd.

As of this afternoon, there are 27 such hard-cores signed up for the 2010 race, which is scheduled to start on Saturday, February 6th and never before have so many of those hard-cores been potential winners.  Here are the ones I think hold the most promise to win, but please remember it's only the opinion of a racing fan and, it's a dog race, ANYTHING can happen.

Lance Mackey is back on the Quest trail after taking last year off.  Of course Lance doesn't need much introduction, he's won the Quest four times and won the Iditarod three.  He is the world's only "Iditaquest" winner, having won both races in the same year, with the same team of dogs, three times.  That kind of performance doesn't occur by accident.  When it comes to racing long distance, Lance is the man, but Lance isn't the only experienced winner to take on the trail next year.

Hans Gatt of Whitehorse is a three-time Quest winner, and I suspect he's hungry.  He was bumped off of the champion's pedestal by Mackey, and I think he wants it back.  I've watched the two interact at events and they obvious respect each other, yet are obviously competitors.  They take each other seriously, and rightfully so. 

Last year Gatt scratched at the half-way point of the race while in fourth place, in hopes of gaining a better performance in the higher-paying Iditarod.  The strategy didn't work out for him (he placed 10th in the I'rod), but he's a smart fellow and he isn't likely to make the same mistake again. 

Hugh Neff surprised a lot of us last year with a brilliant performance in the Quest.  He finished in second place only four minutes behind winner Sebastian Schnuelle, but that was after suffering a two-hour time penalty for a rules violation earlier in the race.  Were it not for the penalty he'd have smoked that sucker.  Hugh has had some issues in the past and doesn't have a particularly good reputation in the sport, but he's obviously been working hard to learn from past mistakes.  Some would say that his brilliant performance last year was a fluke, but I'm not so sure of that.  I want to see how he interacts with his dogs.  He has been playing the game long enough to learn a thing or two, and it's quite likely that he's gained the respect and love of his dogs that is necessary to win such a grueling contest.

Ken Anderson has been paying his dues and building up his kennel, and in my opinion he's a real contender for the 2010 Quest.  Ken finished the 2008 Quest in second place, proving he can keep up with Mackey.  Last year he skipped the Quest to focus on the Iditarod, which he finished in 4th place.  That's pretty damned impressive.  This year he is confident that he has enough dogs to compete well in both races.  I think he will build on his recent successes and do even better this year.

I first met Brent Sass the year he won the Yukon Quest 300, back in 2006.  Since then Brent has taken dog mushing seriously and has been building up an impressive kennel and impressive race history.  Brent is a relatively young guy (30 years old this year) and just getting a good start on his career.  I think he is quite capable of winning this race.

Zach Steer took 2nd place in the 2004 Quest, and then moved on to focus on the Iditarod.  This year he's back on the Quest trail, with the potential of doing quite well.  He is well liked in the mushing community and performs well in most of the races in which he competes.  Whether or not he can translate into a Quest win is anyone's guess, but he will certainly be worth watching.

Okay, that's my list of potential winners.  There are some other veterans who can, and almost certainly will, do well but I can't bring myself to consider them for first place.  There are also some Quest rookies who I think will give us a good show and who are going to impress the pants off of us in the future.  Meanwhile, I think we can look forward to a very exciting Yukon Quest just a few weeks from now.

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