Photo by Whitehorse Star
Photo by Whitehorse Star
TWO RIVERS, Alaska – It looks like Brent Sass will be the 2019 Yukon Quest 1,000-Mile International Sled Dog Race champion.
He was expected to cross the finish line in Fairbanks early this afternoon. At 1:10 this afternoon, he was 3.9 miles from the end.
Hans Gatt of Whitehorse is sitting in second but trails Sass by over 10 miles making a late push to finish first unlikely.
Allen Moore sits six miles behind Gatt in third.
Tagish musher Michelle Phillips, the second musher into Dawson City, sits in fourth with just over 33 miles to go before reaching Fairbanks.
The winner of the race will earn $21,769 US.
The purse for this year’s race is $115,000 US. Second place will get 15,547 and third will 12,431.
Sass, a Eureka, Alaska resident who captured the 2015 Quest title, was the first musher to arrive at the Two Rivers checkpoint at about 7 p.m. Sunday.
The former champion was riding a sled pulled by 14 dogs — the most a team can have — as he made it to Two Rivers. That’s the final checkpoint located about 70 miles from the finish line at the Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitors Center, 101 Dunkel Street.
When asked if he thought it’s his race to win, Sass looked around the dark, empty dog yard and posed a few questions of his own.
“I’m here. Where’s Allen at?” he asked as he wiped dangling icicles from his mustache.
“He’s not right behind me — so yeah, unless he’s got a miraculously faster dog team than he had yesterday. It ain’t over until I cross the finish line, but these guys are looking awesome.
“I’ve got 14 of them; how could you not be travelling the trail fast when you’ve got 14 of them?”
Sass and Moore, last year’s champion from Two Rivers, had gained a little separation from the front of the pack, which also included Phillips and four-time champion Gatt.
As Sunday wore on, though, Sass pulled away from Moore a bit and took sole possession of the lead.
“Blowing through Central, I think, was the key move,” Sass said. He was alluding to the checkpoint 69 miles back up the trail from the Two Rivers checkpoint, which is actually 30 road miles from the small community of the same name.
“It’s hard to go through that checkpoint after you’ve been camping on Birch Creek — or nearby, I camped right off the creek. I knew that was the window.
“But I thought at least one of them would come and follow me, but they didn’t.”
Moore rested at Central, where his mother, Donnie, made a surprise visit from Arkansas to greet him.
On the website of SP Kennel, which Moore owns and operates alongside his wife, Aliy Zirkle, a photo of Moore and his mother was published.
Beneath it, a caption read: “There to greet him was his 90-something year old Mom Donnie who made the trip up from Arkansas!”
Sass said Moore cut his rest time Sunday and noted that other mushers, including Gatt, realized they couldn’t stick with him.
“I was just faster, that’s the bottom line,” Sass said.
“My dog team was faster between checkpoints. That made up the difference. I took longer rests than anybody at most of those checkpoints until they realized they couldn’t catch up with me. Once Hans realized, he was like, ‘Go win this thing, I’m going to rest for six hours.’”
Moore eventually arrived at Two Rivers about 90 minutes after Sass did Sunday night.
Gatt arrived next, at about 9:45 p.m., while Phillips made it to the checkpoint shortly before 10:30 p.m.
Paige Drobny, of Ester, was the next-closest to Two Rivers.
Her team was resting at the previous checkpoint, Mile 101 Steese Highway, located about 40 miles away from Two Rivers.
Earlier on Sunday, Phillips passed Gatt as the two Canadians travelled over Eagle Summit, the 3,685-foot peak teams encounter before reaching Mile 101.
The four-time champion cleared the summit in an estimated 25 mph headwind before walking up to his leaders and lying down beside them for a quick breather.
Gatt got up to give his dogs a snack — Arctic char — and started working on his gear.
While he was making some adjustments, Phillips passed him. After the two exchanged pleasantries, Gatt hopped back on his sled and started his descent toward Mile 101.
After the exchange, journalists at the summit overheard Gatt mumbling, “Worst ever,” as his team pulled away.
“I just went straight up the summit and I saw him there,” Phillips said after arriving at Mile 101. “He was having some issue.”
Further back in the pack is Martin Apayauq Reitan, a 21-year-old rookie from Kaktovik.
His older brother, Vebjorn Aishana Reitan, captured last year’s Rookie of the Year award, given to the highest-placing rookie.
On Sunday, the younger Reitan’s team was leading the field of rookies and was about 68 miles outside Central.
All teams have a mandatory eight-hour layover in Two Rivers, meaning the front of the pack should arrive in Fairbanks sometime this afternoon.
Although Sass didn’t predict what his final runtime will be, he did say his team won’t be stopping much on its way to the finish line.
“Whatever it is, I’m going to put zero pressure,” said Sass, who also noted he’ll leave Two Rivers with all 14 dogs.
“It’ll be nonstop. I’m going to rest them for snacks, but I’ll be there as quickly as I can be there.”
See related coverage.
By Brad Joyal
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
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