John Baker isn't someone who immediately comes to mind when I think of I'rod contenders, but he should be. Living in Kotzebue, he's more well known along the coast than in the Interior, but his racing record includes 16 previous Iditarod finishes, 11 of which were in the top 10. He has placed as high as third in 2009 and in 2002. Last year he won both the Kusko 300 and the Kobuk 440.
According to those along the trail, his dogs have been looking great at every checkpoint, with ears up, eyes alert and tails wagging. He told reporters he didn't intend to really start racing until he hit the Yukon River. It appears that once he did hit the river he decided to prove his point. This evening John Baker leads the race, coming into the checkpoint at Kaltag at 1:19 this afternoon, and leaving the checkpoint four hours later. This gives him a lead of nearly 2 hours over Sebastian Schnuelle, who left Kaltag in second place shortly before Ramey Smyth. Hugh Neff and Hans Gatt is currently the only musher remaining in the checkpoint. Baker generally gains ground on race leaders once he's crossed over to Norton Sound, so he will likely be very hard to catch and even harder to pass.
We don't want to discount the other front-runners, though. Sebastian's time has been running like the energizer bunny, maintaining a slower but very consistent pace out on the trail. Sebastian is known to have tremendous patience with his dogs, and is clearly very disciplined in his trail routine. Like Baker, Ramey Smyth was born in Alaska, practically born on the runners of a dog sled. He's finished 16 Iditarod races in the past, and his record includes 7 top-10 finishes, placing as high as third in 2008. Hugh Neff is running the race a bit differently, more conservatively, than he has in past years and it appears to being off for him. He has a larger team than usual and unlike most years, he isn't falling behind as they race toward the end-game.
Hans is a four-time Yukon Quest champion and he took second place in the race last year. His dogs have been running very well thus far in the Iditarod.
There will be considerably jockeying for position between the other mushers who are currently in Kaltag, including Ray Redington, Sonny Lindner, DeeDee Jonrowe, Lance Mackey, Dallas Seavey and Martin Buser. Even when polished as brightly as possible, my crystal ball doesn't show any of them magically jumping ahead to win the race, though. I have to admit that I'm a bit hesitant to write that, as Lance Mackey's 'Comeback Kennel' is aptly named and he has been known to pull off the impossible in the past.
At this point there is only one thing I am willing to write with absolute certainty. The next two days are going to be very exciting for Iditarod race spectators.
Those of you in the United States - don't forget to set your clocks ahead an hour. DST (Daylight Stupidity Time) is upon us.