It seems like every year I make a blog post describing which teams I think will perform best during the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, and every year I'm wrong. Sometimes WAY wrong. This year I think instead of trying to predict winners, I'll just list some of the folks I know and really like for this race.
There is a wonderful new article about my friend Allen Moore of SPKennel in today's issue of the Fairbanks Daily News Miner. Allen and his wife, Aliy Zirkle, are very good friends and mentors. I'm not sure I'd have become so involved in recreational mushing without their encouragement and guidance. Obviously, I like them both and think very highly of them.
Allen took second in the race last year, by only 26 seconds. After 1,000 miles of the one of the roughest racing trails on the planet, that's incredibly close. Allen is an easy going guy who doesn't say much, but I suspect he's seeking vindication and there is no question that he has the dog team that can do it, given the right trail conditions. Of course, most of the mushers in the race can do it, given the right trail conditions.
Hugh Neff won the race last year. I haven't always thought so highly of Hugh as I do today. He had some rough times, largely of his own making, in the past. If I were to choose the guy who has most improved over the past two decades Hugh would be my top pick. When I first saw his team in 2006 it was pretty clear that his dogs didn't much like him. Since those years he has persevered, learned his hard lessons, and seems to have 'turned a new leaf' not just in his and his team's performance, but in his attitude toward his chosen sport, and his entire life. Today he has the magic connection with his dogs that makes dog mushing fun, and he's proved he can win the race and take really good care of his team mates in the process. He's earned my respect for that.
In media interviews, Hugh has attributed his change in attitude to his friendship with my next favorite. I've been a Lance Mackey fan for many years. He's one of those guys who accepts and overcomes challenges to do what others believe "impossible". When the 'conventional wisdom' was that no team could win both the Quest and the Iditarod in the same year, he did it. Then, when conventional wisdom was that his back-to-back victories were a fluke and impossible to duplicate, he did it again.
Today the nay-sayers claim that once a multiple race winner's dogs have to retire due to old age, the winning combination can not be duplicated. There are certainly plenty examples of that in the long distance sled dog racing world, but Lance has a way of turning 'conventional wisdom' on it's ear. There isn't much 'conventional' about him.
Lance is one of the most 'down-to-earth' guys I know. He's generous with his knowledge, always approachable and practical. Yeah, I like Lance a lot for this race.
Brent Sass is another of my favorites. He and his dogs actually LIKE tough trails and foul weather. The meaner it gets out there, the more they seem to revel in it. He's another really nice guy who loves and has an incredible bond with his dogs. He seems to be all about having fun and his dogs pick up on that (or maybe he just gets it from his dogs). I have no doubt that Brent is going to win this race one of these years really soon, maybe this year. If the weather and trail turn bad, Brent is the one I think most likely to prevail. "Wild and Free" isn't just his kennel name, it's his life attitude.
Abbey West is also one of my favorites. She is one of the most persistent women I know and she truly LIVES for the Yukon Quest. She has a great team of dogs from lines developed in Fort Yukon. Some are kin to my dog Aumaruq, and though he's a big, goofy guy and his behavior can sometimes be a vexation - that dog runs straight, pulls hard and shows some incredible leader potential. As always, Abbey has been training hard and smart this year, she knows the trail and knows the variety of conditions it can throw at her. Only a fool would discount her.
I'm only casually acquainted with Dan Kaduce, but I do know that he and Jodi Bailey have been training hard up in the White Mountains. I know that country and the terrain and one couldn't find better for training dogs and musher to run the Quest. Like all of my favorites listed thus far, Dan has a lot of experience out on the trail and I wouldn't be a bit surprised to see him be the first to arrive in Fairbanks.
Please remember, these are just some of the folks I'm acquainted with. There are certainly others signed up to race who are equally dedicated, equally bonded with their dogs, and equally hungry for a win. It very well could be "anybody's race" this year.