Whitehorse Daily Star

Kinship with dogs keeps Gatt on the trail

Three-time Yukon Quest champion Hans Gatt would certainly like to win the race again this year, but he isn't expecting anything.

By Whitehorse Star on February 7, 2006

Three-time Yukon Quest champion Hans Gatt would certainly like to win the race again this year, but he isn't expecting anything.

'There's still several teams who can win the race. It's not like I take it for granted that I'm going to win, that's for sure,' Gatt told the Star recently.

Gatt said this year's competition is pretty stiff. Five of the six top finishers in the 2005 Quest are returning for the 2006 race, which will begin Saturday in Fairbanks.

Carcross musher William Kleedehn, who came in just eight minutes after 2005 winner Lance Mackey, will be one of the main competitors, said Gatt. Though, the veteran musher said he will also be watching out for Mackey and Gerry Willomitzer, who placed sixth in 2005 after a sled runner broke heading into Eagle, Alaska.

'There are four or five people who can definitely win the race,' said Gatt. 'But then there are always those you don't count on.

'Somebody might just have a really good run that you don't count in and end up winning the race.

'The competition is pretty stiff. There's a lot of good teams out there.'

Gatt won the 1,600-kilometre race between Fairbanks and Whitehorse in 2002, 2003 and 2004.

His 2004 run was completed in a record time for the Fairbanks-to-Whitehorse direction of the race at 10 days, 18 hours and 48 minutes.

But he didn't run the Quest last year, instead focusing his energies on the Iditarod, where he placed 18th.

Gatt has run the Anchorage-to-Nome race six times, with his best placing in 2000 when he placed 12th.

He also ran the race in 2002, one of the same years he won the Quest. The back-to-back run made him one of just a few mushers who have competed in the two long-distance races in the same year.

This year, he plans to do it again.

Winning the Iditarod is one of Gatt's last goals in mushing, he said.

'Really I haven't done the Iditarod as well as I would like to do. Before I quit, I'd like to have a decent placing on the Iditarod,' said Gatt, who claims he has been contemplating retiring from mushing more frequently over the last three years.

'It's really hard to quit, because I really like the dogs. I love my dogs,' he said.

'That's probably the hardest thing, facing the fact that if you quit, you've got to get rid of the dogs. You've got to sell some dogs. I think that's what keeps me in the sport more than anything.'

As he works toward winning the Iditarod, Gatt said he will likely start phasing the Quest out of his future race plans.

But he will be running the Quest competitively this year, he said, with the strongest team he has been able to assemble.

On the Iditarod, he will be running a young team composed entirely of two-year-old sled dogs.

'Obviously I'm not trying to run the Iditarod competitively,' he said. 'But I'm trying to build up an Iditarod team for the future. That's why I'm taking those young dogs out there just to give them the experiences. That way, they'll be veterans next year. It gives me a little bit of an edge.

'It's not going to be spectacular on the Iditarod. I'll probably have a hard time doing that because of my competitive nature. But I think it's necessary if I want to go ahead and build an Iditarod team and do well in the Iditarod.'

It's that competitive nature that means he'll be disappointed if he doesn't cross the finish line in Whitehorse at the end of the Yukon Quest in first place.

'But then you go back and scrutinizing everything and figure out where you made your mistakes and try to do better next time,' he said. 'It's racing and I've lost races before. You can't win every single race.'

Gatt, who was born in Austria, first began racing in 1988 after seeing a dog sled race in 1987.

In 1990, he moved to Atlin, B.C., and competed in sprint races before trying the Quest in 1993, where he placed seventh.

He has continued with the long-distance sledding since.

'I like the (Yukon Quest), there's no doubt about it,' he said. 'It's the remoteness, the distance between checkpoints. It is a really rough rugged race and I think that challenge that's what I like.'

Gatt said he doesn't believe he has a winning strategy for the Quest. He just does the same thing each year, he said.

'I've run the race four times now, I've won it three times. It worked in the past. Basically, I just go out there and run my own race.'

His team on the Quest will have about six dogs that have run the Quest before. The rest are three-year-olds with very little race experience, he said.

'For a while I thought I would have a really, really incredible team, but then some injuries are coming. You have to go back to plan B and put some dogs on the team you didn't really want to put in.

'It's kind of a gamble, you know,' he said.

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