Led by the indomitable spirit of a 68-pound sled dog named Basin, Brent Sass was crowned champion of the 2015 Yukon Quest on Monday night in Fairbanks, Alaska.
It was a ninth attempt at the title for the American, who finished over an hour ahead of his rival and two-time defending champion Allen Moore.
As the first two mushers out of the gate on Feb. 7, the pair turned the final stretch into a thrilling affair.
Moore left the Two Rivers checkpoint at Mile 909 with a two-minute lead over Sass, who at one point was 10 hours ahead of his competitors.
But on Monday night it wasn’t long before Sass and his 12 dogs were hot on his heels.
As he explains it, he had to come up with a game plan to catch up to and pass Moore at a strategic moment.
“When we left Two Rivers it was warm and the dogs were slow going, but I was getting split times from fans telling me I was slowly catching up to Moore,” he said.
“I knew there was a road crossing coming up in Two Rivers, where Moore is from, and my plan was to catch up and pass him before the crossing. I was hoping the excitement and crowds would amp the dogs up.”
The move paid off, as Sass and his 12 dogs were able to overlap Moore about 180 metres before the crossing.
From then on it was a cruise to the finish line, Sass said, with his dogs reaching speeds similar to what they were at the beginning of the race.
The driving force behind that success was Basin’s performance down the stretch.
Most sled dogs in the race weigh between 45 and 50 pounds, so Basin doesn’t quite fit the mold.
But the four-year-old showed he has more drive than any other dog, Sass said.
“He’s awesome, he’d been running lead dog the whole way and I usually like to switch them around to give them a break, so I put him in swing for a while,” he said.
Swing dogs, or point dogs, are directly behind the leaders and ‘swing’ the rest of the dogs in turns or curves on the trail.
“He looked at me like ‘Why’d you do that,’ I could see it in his eyes, so I put him back up there. He’s a monster, he looks like a horse.
“You compare him to Allen Moore’s dogs, he could eat Allen Moore’s dogs.”
Sass took a long nap between the Circle and Central checkpoints, which cut his lead down from 10 hours to having Moore eventually pass him.
The reason behind his extended snooze? He explained that midway through the 75 mile (120 kilometres) run, his dogs were getting tired, so he decided to stop for what was going to be a four to five hour break.
He slipped into his sleeping bag and dozed off, waking up about nine hours later.
“I got a lot of crap for that.”
But in the back of his mind, he knew the extra rest would benefit his dogs in the long run.
“Because of that, the dogs got steadily faster,” he said.
“What you find is that when you rest the dogs, you see the benefits of those long rests a couple runs down the trail.”
Sass quickly made up ground on Moore, who had a 30-minute lead leaving the Mile 101 checkpoint.
By the time Sass made it to Two Rivers, that lead was down to two minutes.
“The thing with a big lead is that you’re all alone, you get lost in your own little world and you get paranoid about what’s happening behind you,” he said.
“I was actually more confident when I was closer to him because it felt like a race, like it was all on the line and there was no room for error.
Sass, who finished the race in nine days, 12 hours and 49 minutes, takes home $24,061.92, or 18.93 per cent of the $127,110 purse.
He also claims four ounces of gold for being the first musher to arrive at Dawson City and finish the race.
He came close to winning last year’s race but was sidelined with a head injury just before the final checkpoint.
He’s now turning his attention to the Iditarod, which starts on March 7.
Tagish resident Ed Hopkins finished in third place, arriving in Fairbanks late on Tuesday evening.
As of this morning, 10 mushers were left.
This year’s Quest saw five teams scratch in the first three days of the race. It’s the most to scratch before the second half of the race since 2011.
Contact Myles Dolphin at