Eureka, Alaska’s Brent Sass isn’t feeling the pressure of being the defending champ in February’s Yukon Quest.
Quite the opposite.
The 36-year-old seems to enjoy the fact he’ll be the one to beat in the 1,000-mile international sled dog race from Fairbanks, Alaska to Whitehorse beginning on Feb. 6.
“I just think people now see me as a real contender, which gives me more confidence,” said Sass in an email to the News. “I’m more excited, confident and fired up for my 10th Quest, the way I was for any of the nine before! It’s going to be an exciting race!”
Sass, who won his first Quest title last winter, is one of three past champions in the 33rd annual event.
Two Rivers, Alaska’s Allen Moore is registered for the race a sixth year in a row. The 58-year-old won in 2013 and 2014 and placed second behind Sass last year.
2012 champ Hugh Neff of Tok, Alaska, is returning for his 16th Yukon Quest. The 48-year-old placed second behind Moore in 2013 and 2014, and fifth last year.
Sass, along with his lead dog Basin, finished the 2015 Quest in nine days, 12 hours and 49 minutes last February. Moore reached the finish line about an hour and 14 minutes later.
For the win, Sass pocketed $24,061.92, plus four ounces of gold for being the first to Dawson City, the race’s halfway point.
“Basin is still very strong but I will have 10 dogs I consider leaders in the team,” said Sass. “Won’t know until the race is over who will shine the brightest this year. And that’s exciting! I describe all my dogs as special!
“(I am) confident! I have better base, more quality time on the trail then ever before! It’s a great mix of seasoned veterans with some very, very talented two to three-year-olds fighting for a spot. At least 10 of them will be back from last year’s team.”
A total of 27 teams are registered for February’s race, including five from Yukon.
Ed Hopkins of 10 Mile outside of Tagish, is probably Yukon’s top contender. The 51-year-old veteran took third place in last year’s Quest, which was his seventh since 1993. His previous best finish was eighth in 2005.
Whitehorse’s Rob Cooke, 49, will race his third Quest in February. He placed 16th last year, 18th in 2013 and also 50th in last year’s Iditarod.
Mendenhall’s Luc Tweddell, 40, is registered for his second Quest, following a 14th place finish in 2009.
Whitehorse’s Yuka Honda, 43, is also set for her second outing. She placed 15th in 2012.
Mendenhall’s Gaetan Pierrard is the only rookie of the Yukoners. The 39-year-old placed fourth in last season’s Percy DeWolfe Memorial Mail Race in Dawson City and was named Rookie of the Year in the event.
Hank DeBruin of Haliburton, Ont. is the only one other Canadian registered besides the Yukoners. The 53-year-old has raced the Quest once before, taking eighth in 2014.
Twenty-five teams are also signed up for the Yukon Quest 300 – the 300-mile race – from Fairbanks to Circle, Alaska.
Among them is 2014 champ Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers. The 46-year-old is the only woman to win the Yukon Quest 1,000, which she did in 2000. She also placed second in the Iditarod three years in a row between 2012 and 2014.
Just two Yukoners are entered in the 300.
Fox Lake’s Fabian Schmitz and Mendenhall’s Olaf Thurau have each done the race once before, but both years in which the race began in Whitehorse, not Fairbanks. (The Yukon Quest runs from Whitehorse to Fairbanks in odd numbered years and the opposite in even numbered years.)
“I think it’s going to be fun. I wanted to see the trail on the Alaska side,” said Schmitz. “That’s what really appealed to me: seeing something else, see a different part of that 1,000-mile trail.”
Schmitz placed 15th in 2011 and Thurau fourth in the 2013.
By starting in Fairbanks, Schmitz and Thurau will face some formidable obstacles, including Eagle Summit at 1,113 metres in height and Rosebud Summit at 1,109 metres.
“I think it’s going to be quite difficult climbing over Rosebud Summit and Eagle Summit – those are places everyone is talking about in the Quest,” said Schmitz. “One of the concerns with Eagle Summit is if there’s enough snow covering the rocks.
“If it is a bare-bone race, I’m not sure I’d be willing to go over that summit – if the rocks are showing. We’ll see. Everyone is hoping for good snow, good conditions.”
The only other Canadian in the 300 is race rookie Steven Laviolette of St. Lucie des Laurentides, Que.
Last year’s winner, Tagish’s Michelle Phillips, is not entered but is fourth down on the race’s waiting list.
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