Matt Hall named his kennel Smokin’ Ace because he likes to play poker. It would seem the musher from Two Rivers, Alaska, also gambles while on the trail.
As of early afternoon Feb. 6, all three past champs competing in this year’s Yukon Quest went from tied for first to tied for second as Hall flew through Stepping Stone — a hospitality stop with no mandatory rest time — to jump from fifth to first place in the 34th annual race between Whitehorse and Fairbanks.
Defending champ Hugh Neff of Tok, Alaska, was the first to Stepping Stone just before 9 a.m., leading 2015 champion Brent Sass of Eureka, Alaska, by a few minutes. Allen Moore, also of Two Rivers, and who won the race in 2013 and 2014, got there two and half hours later with a small lead over rookie Katherine Keith of Kotzebue, Alaska.
Hall skipped an opportunity to rest and took the lead just before 1 p.m. while the other four opted to stay in Stepping Stone — about 437 kilometres into the 1,600-kilometre journey.
Hall, 25, placed fourth in last year’s Quest and third in 2014.
Neff, who also won the Quest in 2012, took the lead after Braeburn and held it through Carmacks and Pelly Crossing. The 49-year-old was the first out of Pelly Crossing Sunday morning at 3:33 a.m., about an hour ahead of Sass.
At 2 p.m. on Monday, 10 Mile’s Ed Hopkins was the top Yukoner and Canadian in sixth place about 13 kilometres from Stepping Stone. Brian Wilmshurst of Dawson City was in ninth.
Hopkins’ partner Michelle Phillips looks poised to take her third Yukon Quest 300 title. At press time on Monday, Phillips left Pelly Crossing with a two-hour lead on 2014 champ Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers.
Phillips, who won the race the last two times it started in Whitehorse, will need to hold the lead to Stepping Stone and back to Pelly for the win. She beat Zirkle by just eight seconds to win her 2013 title.
Whitehorse’s Nathaniel Hamlyn, who is racing in his first Quest 300, was in third Monday afternoon.
Though the Quest 1,000 hasn’t seen a scratch yet, the 300 race has had a few. Whitehorse mushers Susie Rogan and Melissa Schenke, Dawson City’s Kyla Boivin, Anchorage’s Scott Janssen and Two Rivers’ Chase Tingle have all dropped out.
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