Thing are starting to settle down a bit here at work, so the pace should be a little less frantic. The same is probably true out on the Yukon Quest trail. Our front-running teams have arrived in Dawson and are settled in for a nice 36-hour break. During the midway layover mushers are permitted to turn dog care chores over to their handlers while they get some much needed rest, some hot food, showers and so forth. Some will have to make repairs to their sleds and other equipment and some will just wait, and waiting can sometimes be the most frustrating part.
As of 6:30 this morning, the following mushers are enjoying their break at Dawson.
Hugh Neff, who enjoys a nearly 2 and 1/2 hour lead over -
Hans Gatt, a wiley veteran who has proved his ability to win the race.
Ken Anderson followed Hans by about 2 1/4 hours, but had 2 of his 12 dogs in the sled.
Brent Sass came in about an hour and a half after Ken.
Sebastian Schnuelle follwed Brent by about 3/4 of an hour.
Allen Moore came in less than half an hour behind Sab, and still has all 14 dogs on the gangline.
Wade Marrs was only 8 minutes behind Allen, but is down to only 9 of his original 14 dogs.
Dallas Seavey arrived in Dawson shortly after mid-night.
Dan Kaduce came into Dawson at about 3 o'clock this morning.
Back when I first started following long-distance sled dog racing it was generally believed that any team that arrived in Dawson within 12 hours of the leader had a fair chance of winning the race. Today the sport is even more competitive that it was then, and I believe that to have an honest chance one must arrive in Dawson within 8 hours of the leading team. With Wade Marrs down to only 9 dogs, and likely to drop one or two more before everything is said and done, I think we can safely remove him from the short list of potential winners. He'll have to be very careful with his remaining dogs just to finish.
That leaves us with six potential winners.
Allen Moore is currently the strongest running Yukon Quest rookie in the race. He still has a full team of 14 dogs that are performing remarkably well. Allen's Team is made up of racing dogs all in the prime of life and currently in prime physical and mental condition. Although a rookie to the Quest, he has finished several Iditarods, usually running teams that are in training while his wife, Aliy Zirkle runs the "A" team. Allen is widely considered to be a "guru" of middle-distance racing and is a multiple champion of the gruelling Copper Basin 300. Allen is also in excellent physical condition, and is a very physical musher who spends much more time peddling or ski-poling to help has team than do most mushers.
As the race progresses into more challenging terrain, including an almost immediate climb up American Summit, the power of a full team coupled with Allen's conditioning may give him an advantage over smaller teams with less physical drivers. Allen is a clear choice for Rookie of the Year and will almost certainly place well in the race, but lack of experience in this particular race makes it unlikely that he will be first to Fairbanks. If he is I sure hope I'm there to join the PARTY!!!
As I've noted before, Sebastian Schnuelle is highly regarded among dog mushers as being a brilliant trainer and there is no question that he can bring a team first across the finish line. He did that in 2009. He has an exceptionally close relationship with his dogs. He tends to run a conservative race, which pays off highly in poor trail or extreme weather conditions. This year the trail is apparently in great shape, and we couldn't ask for nicer dog mushing weather, so though Sab is going to do well, I'd be hard pressed to pick him as the winner unless a couple of those ahead of him make some serious mistakes.
Brent Sass is a very dedicated young musher who has done very well thus far in his career, and seems to be constantly improving. He bases his training efforts from a place in Eureka where he has carved more than 100 miles of trails just for training his teams. This year he has been running conservatively through the first part of the trail, but I'm betting he'll be pouring on the coals once he's topped American Summit. He needs to make up some time, but he is definitely a contender in this year's race.
Ken Anderson is also very dedicated, relatively young and in good physical condition, but he's not a small man. He's tall and his weight is proportional to his height. With only 11 dogs on the gang-line and 2 in the basket coming into Dawson he may be a bit underpowered compared to the other front runners. If he has to drop one or both of those dogs it will hurt him on the three big summits that lie ahead. I believe he'll continue to do well in the race, but like Sab, his chances of winning require other front runners to make mistakes that they are unlikely to do.
This brings us to Hans Gatt and Hugh Neff, either of which has the potential to take home the first place paycheck. Hans has a strong track record and a strong team. Last year his team walked away from Lance Mackey by using Mackey's favorite tactic of an exceptionally long run. As I compared the speed of the two teams last year it was evident that Gatt's team was 1/2 mile an hour faster than Lance's, and Hans took full advantage of that speed.
Hans has been running his own race thus far, giving his dogs plenty of rest as well has good runs. I believe that will give him the advantage over Hugh Neff and at this point I see no good reason to not pick him as a winner.
That doesn't mean that I think Hugh will make it easy or that he can't win. Clearly he has the potential, and proved it in 2009. Had he not drawn a penalty he'd have won the 2009 race quite handily.
Hugh Neff has been setting a blindingly fast pace thus far and has been able to hold his team together well. The question is whether or not he can maintain that kind of pace in the second half of the race. No one (other than Hugh) knows whether he will attempt to maintain that sort of speed during the second half of the race, but I believe that he can't. He has three major summits to cross, all of which require power rather than speed.
Hugh has a reputation for driving his dogs hard. That sometimes pays off for a musher who knows his teams limits and can approach the edge of the envelope without dropping over. Hugh's performance, and that of his teams, has improved greatly over the past few years and he's clearly a contender, but I don't think he is yet able to judge his team with that highest degree of precision. I'd love to be proved wrong, though.
If Hugh drives his team beyond that fine edge of performance, it is likely that he will not only loose the winning position, but will loose many positions on the leaderboard and perhaps be forced to scratch. It's a pretty huge risk for a musher who is trying to live down the nickname "Huge Wreck". I do wish him the very best of luck, though luck has a limited impact in most cases.
There are some mushers in the middle of the pack that I think can pick up some positions, and earn a higher payday in this race. The current middle-of-the-pack group is made up of some very strong long distance racers. Dan Kaduce, Kelley Griffin, Josh Cadzow, Michelle Phillps, Jodi Bailey, Dave Dalton and Mike Ellis all have solid teams and all except Bailey have experience on this trail. Dalton is running a very young team this year and viewing it primarily as a training year with plans to smoke 'em next year. Mike Ellis' "Team Tsuga" holds the record for the fastest Yukon Quest finish with a pure-bred Siberian Husky team, and he could easily better that record time this year.
Anyhow, that's how I perceive the race at this point but I've been wrong before, more often than I've been right. ANYTHING can happen out there, and it wouldn't be a dog race if it didn't.