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Sass first to Dawson as Quest teams drop like flies

A dog in the sled, a little frostbitten, but Eureka, Alaska's Brent Sass reached Dawson City feeling great.

A dog in the sled, a little frostbitten, but Eureka, Alaska’s Brent Sass reached Dawson City feeling great.

For the second year in a row, the 35-year-old was the first to the halfway point of the Yukon Quest sled dog race on Tuesday.

“I feel great. The dogs performed really well in the first half of the race and I’m running my planned race,” said Sass. “I’m looking forward to the second half of the race.”

Sass reached Dawson at 3:01 p.m. with a substantial six-hour lead over defending champ Allen Moore of Two Rivers, Alaska, who was second into Dawson last year as well.

Sass suffered some frostbite in his fingers, but the mandatory 24-hour layover in the Klondike town has helped, he said.

“Yah, I’ve nipped a few fingers, most of it happened in Braeburn at the very first checkpoint - it was really cold when I came blowing through there in the middle of the night,” said Sass. “Packing my sled I had to take my gloves off to get some zippers zipped up and I got nipped a little bit. But it’s all part of the game and just this little bit of break they’ve had from the cold has really helped and they’ll be fine.”

As the first to Dawson, Sass received four ounces of placer gold worth about $6,000, which he’ll get to keep provided he finishes the 1,600-kilometre race from Whitehorse to Fairbanks.

He wasn’t so fortunate last year when the race ran the opposite direction. Sass was withdrawn from the race after suffering a concussion in a fall from his sled before the final checkpoint in Braeburn. He was in second place at the time of the accident.

Sass, who placed third in 2013, is applying last year’s lessons to this year’s race - his ninth Quest.

“I’m taking better care of myself: I’m eating much, much better on the trail, I’m hydrating way, way more than I did in the past,” said Sass. “I’m really aware of myself more than I have been in the past, which in turn helps me take more care of my dogs ... In the past I’ve been so focused on the dogs I’ve lost track of myself and that’s what led to my accident last year.”

Moore, 57, who is going for his third straight title, reached Dawson at 9:18 p.m. last night.

2012 Quest champ Hugh Neff of Tok, Alaska, is once again nipping at Moore’s heels. The 47-year-old, who has placed second the last two Quests, reached Dawson two minutes before midnight on Tuesday.

As of Wednesday morning, Tagish’s Ed Hopkins was the top Yukoner in sixth, two spots ahead of four-time champ Lance Mackey of Fairbanks.

Whitehorse’s Normand Casavant was in 10th and Dawson’s Brian Wilmshurst was racing home in the 12th place spot.

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.

Denali Park, Alaska’s Jeff King, who won the race in 1989, scratched in Pelly Crossing Monday. Eagle, Alaska’s Matt Hall, who placed third last year, did the same.

Willow, Alaska’s Scott Smith, Mount Lorne’s Tamra Reynolds, and Fairbanks’ Tony Angelo all scratched in Carmacks.

“I really do believe cold gets into people’s heads and it can really bring your attitude down,” said Sass. “Once you lose your attitude and excitement for the race, it’s a pretty tough task to continue - torturing yourself is what it becomes.”

As for the dog that rode the final leg in the sled, Sass hasn’t decided if he’ll leave Dawson this afternoon with or without him.

“He’s a younger dog who just wasn’t keeping up with the speed we were coming down off the Dome with,” said Sass. “I haven’t made the call yet, but I think I’m going to leave here with 13.”

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