The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is scheduled to start on Saturday with the ceremonial brouhaha in Anchorage, and then get underway for the real of Sunday. Like all race fans, I have my favorites within the line-up, and some not-so-favorites, so I will admit that anything I write is likely contaminated by my own bias.
This year the line-up is short compared to many previous races. 62 mushers appear to be ready for the trail. Of those, I see 16 names of people who have the experience and probably the quality of dogs necessary to win given the right conditions. Today I'll share my "short list" of teams I'll be watching very closely.
If one is betting money on the race (and some are), I'd have to pick the "Dogfather" as the winner. Lance Mackey is clearly on a roll, and he's set the entire mushing world on it's ear with his uncanny relationship with his dogs and his ability to get teams first to the finish line in the world's most challenging long distance races. The only musher thus far in race history to win four in a row, he may well be on his way to matching Rick Swenson's record of 5 Iditarod championships.
Lance CAN be beaten, however and there are a lot of very smart, very competitive mushers who are basing their race strategies on what it takes to beat Lance Mackey. Those who have studied and adopted Lance's training concepts and methods are doing very well in all of the long distance races, and as the Yukon Quest demonstrated last month, the dog race isn't over until the dogs are across the finish line.
Very high on my short list is Sebastian Schnuelle, but I have to admit my bias in picking Sab. After the race I'll be providing a retirement home for one of his dogs so in some regards I can claim to "have a dog in this fight." Sab is a Yukon Quest champion and finished second to Mackey in the 2009 race and he took second place in this year's Quest. He is widely regarded as one of the best trainers in the sport, and his dog care is second to none. This was demonstrated in the Quest when he decided to give up the lead in this year's race to ensure the dogs got adequate rest at the Mile 101 checkpoint. All of his decisions on the trail are based on the best interest of his team and he is very disciplined in that regard. He isn't the kind of guy to let the pressure of competition override his judgment.
He was also one of the few Yukon Quest mushers to come through the race relatively unscathed physically. That may be a HUGE factor in this year's Iditarod. On the other side of the coin, he has decided to leave several of his younger Quest dogs off of his Iditarod team, replacing them with older, more experienced dogs. Apparently he feels that the conditions they overcame in the Quest may have taken a physical and psychological toll and he doesn't want to risk long-term harm to those young ones. Older veteran dogs tend to be more psychologically tough than the young pups, but they are also more prone to injuries.
The father and son combination of Mitch and Dallas Seavey will certainly provide some entertainment. Dallas ran the Quest basically as a pre-Iditarod training run and ended up winning the race. He did so by exercising mature judgment, through excellence in dog care and sheer perseverance. Those are the qualities required to win the Iditarod, and he's proven his ability, and that of his team.
Mitch is a former Iditarod champ, and has been around for a long time. He is highly regarded as a trainer and racer and we can't discount the value of a family feud. When father and son are competing you can bet the competition will be friendly, but fierce. They will spur each other on to levels of performance that neither realized was possible.
Martin Buser is a favorite with just about everyone who knows him. People tend to like Marin, and dogs just adore him. Another previous champion and current record holder for the fastest time over the trail, he goes into the Iditarod with the advantage of having NOT been beaten up by the Quest. In the past his strategy has been based on the speed of his dogs, making fast runs between checkpoints and giving plenty of rest once there. In other words, he runs the Iditarod like a big stage race. No one knows if that strategy has changed, but if it has Martin will be a formidable presence in this year's race.
2011 could be Aliy Zirkle's winning year. Once again I have to disclaim my personal bias. Aliy and Allen are my good friends and mentors, so I have a strong bias toward the SP Kennel. That noted, Aliy has been having a lot of fun with her team this year, and that is vital toward creating the kind of bond necessary to win the Last Great Race. She has her choice of the strongest dogs in a relatively small kennel, and it will be interesting to see how many of her team members will be dogs who just finished the Quest in Allen's team. Allen's rookie run was incredible by anybody's standards and his dogs came to the finish line looking fresh and ready to go again. Aliy also had the advantage of NOT being hammered by the conditions on this year's Quest trail.
Ken Anderson also belongs on my short list. Another Quest survivor, he took the third place money in this year's race and came in with a small but strong looking team of dogs. I don't know how many dogs he has in reserve in his kennel, but I think the strength of his Iditarod team will depend upon the strength of those who were not out on the Quest trail.
There are some others who are quite capable of bringing a winning team across the finish line. Rick Swenson is the race's only 5-time winner, but it's been a long time since he has done so. That doesn't mean he can't. He has great dogs and a great work ethic, and I know for fact he's been training hard. The same is true of Sonny Lindner. Based on recent race performance it's hard to pick either as a winner, but neither would be a surprise, either.
DeeDee Jonrowe falls into the same class. She's always done well in the Iditarod, but not quite well enough. In recent years she's had to scratch or has been severely hampered by personal injuries and issues. She keeps bouncing back, though. I like DeeDee a lot and I'd be delighted to see her earn a new pickup truck at the finish.
Normally I would list Hans Gatt and Hugh Neff on my short list, but this year I doubt that either will do particularly well. I'd be delighted to be proved wrong, but I think that both were badly hurt in the Quest. Hugh had to scratch when his dogs balked at Eagle Summit and one of his leaders died. Both of his hands were badly frost-bitten and though there has been some time for healing, I doubt it's been enough time. He'll have to take excellent care of himself and his own injuries just to make it to the finish line.
Hans also had to scratch from the Quest after finding himself in two different life-threatening circumstances. He also suffered severe frostbite to his hands and at this point I'm actually rather surprised he hasn't withdrawn. They are both tough men with excellent teams, but I think this year they will be content to finish somewhere in the money, probably in good money, but I can't envision either of them winning. Hans has been talking about retiring from long distance racing, and I suspect that after this year's Iditarod he may actually do so, at least for a while.
So, this is my own personal "take" on this year's Iditarod field. I'm sure I've overlooked a few, and perhaps overrated some as well. One of the great things about this crazy sport is that you never really know until the dogs and their primates have finally crossed the finish line.
I'll be at work during most of the race, but of course I'll follow it as closely as the available technology permits. Speaking of work, I need to pack my bags and get on the road. I'll be on night-shift for the next two weeks.