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Brent Sass leaves Dawson with sizable lead in Quest

This year's Yukon Quest has been much harder than last year's, says Eureka, Alaska's Brent Sass. The defending champ has struggled to keep his dogs healthy on the trail.

This year’s Yukon Quest has been much harder than last year’s, says Eureka, Alaska’s Brent Sass.

The defending champ has struggled to keep his dogs healthy on the trail, but that hasn’t prevented Sass from opening a considerable lead on the rest of the field.

The 36-year-old and his team left Dawson City - the race’s halfway point - at 12:21 a.m. Friday and was over 20 kilometres up from second place’s Allen Moore at press time this morning.

“I’m feeling really good. It’s been an interesting race, it’s been lots of fun, lots of challenges,” said Sass during the mandatory 36-hour layover in Dawson. “I think a lot of us are suffering from a bug going through the dogs, so it’s been more work.

“Last year is was a magic carpet ride. I really didn’t have any problems ... This year has been much different. I’ve had to work hard keeping the dogs hydrated, keeping them fed, keeping them happy on the trail. But they’ve done excellent and I’m very proud of the dog team.”

For the third year in a row, Sass was the first to Dawson at midday on Wednesday. He was presented with four ounces of gold he’ll get to keep if he finishes the race, which is far from a certainty. In the 2014 Quest Sass fell from his sled just before the final checkpoint of the race, had to withdraw and forfeit the Dawson gold.

For the second half of the race, “The main goal is keeping the dogs healthy and happy,” said Sass.

Moore - the 2013 and 2014 Quest champ from Two Rivers - left Dawson two hours behind Sass and had 2012 champ Hugh Neff of Tok, Alaska hot on his heels en route to Scroggie Creek.

Fourth place’s Matt Hall of Two Rivers left Dawson at 5 a.m., about two and a half hours ahead of 10 Mile’s Ed Hopkins - the leading Yukon musher.

“It’s been going pretty good. I’ve been doing my thing out there, trying to be patient and wait for the opportunities to show up,” said Hopkins in Dawson. “I’m just going to run the same pace, schedule I drew out and we’ll just see what happens.”

“My dogs got pretty sick when we were leaving Circle, (Alaska,) and had some pretty bad diarrhea and weren’t eating well,” he added. “Just around the Fortymile Mile River they started turning around ... So I came in here with them already bouncing up, so after 36 hours they’ll seem like a whole new team altogether. I’ll probably be leaving here with 13 dogs too; I don’t think there’s anyone I’ll be dropping.”

In the last two days the other four Yukon teams have either improved or maintained their positions in the standings.

Whitehorse’s Yuka Honda has moved up from 10th to eighth; Mendenhall’s Luc Tweddell moved up a spot to 14th; Whitehorse’s Rob Cooke and Mendenhall’s Gaetan Pierrard have maintained 17th and 18th, respectively, in the current field of 21.

The race, which began Saturday in Fairbanks, saw its second scratch Friday morning. Hank DeBruin of Haliburton, Ont. called it quits in Eagle, Alaska, citing the morale and health of his team. DeBruin was the only other Canadian in the race other than the five Yukoners.

The 2016 champion could arrive at the finish in Whitehorse as early as Sunday, said organizers.

“Thanks to all the volunteers and race officials out there and veterinarians. They are all doing a great job helping us get down the trail,” added Sass.

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