The Yukon Quest is half over, but the race has only just begun, according to the frontrunners.
Eureka, Alaska’s Brent Sass reached Dawson City – the 1,000-mile sled dog race’s halfway point – late Tuesday evening. Allen Moore, the defending champ from Two Rivers, Alaska, was just two-and-a-half hours behind.
Hugh Neff, the 2012 Quest winner, was just an hour-and-a-half behind Moore.
“This race is just about to get going. Once you hit Dawson, that’s the place you start really racing,” said Sass.
“Up until now we’re just trying to hold our dog team together, keep them healthy, and I’m really glad I’ve been able to do that and get here first. That’s a first for me after seven Quests – this is my eighth Quest. I’m in a very good position right now.”
“I’m looking forward to getting to the finish line, but there’s a lot that’s going to go on between here and there,” said Moore. “Hopefully it’s all positive.”
Sass set out from Dawson with a two-plus hour lead Thursday morning. He and Moore traded the lead early in the race until after Slaven’s Cabin, where Sass began to grow a lead.
“I’ve been running on a very different schedule,” said Sass. “I’ve been blowing through all the checkpoints. I camp before or after the checkpoints.
“I’d go through a checkpoint and camp and those guys would be back at the checkpoint and they would pass me. Then I’d come to the next checkpoint and go ahead.”
“He’s been resting in different places than I have – actually, he hasn’t been resting much,” said Moore. “We have been leapfrogging and probably will be in the future.”
Sass placed third in last year’s Quest behind Moore and Neff and has finished in the top-10 every year since 2008.
As the first to Dawson, Sass will pocket four ounces of gold worth about $5,000, if he finishes the race in Whitehorse.
Moore arrived in the Klondike town in second place last year as well before winning the race with a record time of eight days, 18 hours, 27 minutes. This year’s course is even shorter than last year.
“With the trails being as fast as they are, we’re going a lot faster,” said Moore. “We’re a day earlier (into Dawson) than normal, at least.
“We’ve been staying on our schedule,” he added. “The trail has been different of course, but we still stuck to our schedule trying to get the most rest for our dogs in the first half and we achieved that.
“I’m pretty happy with the dogs coming into here. They are well hydrated, they’re perky and they have a lot of energy still. Hopefully that’s going to pay off at the end of the race. That’s what I’m gambling on.”
Ester, Alaska’s Cody Strathe was fourth into Dawson just before 7 p.m. Wednesday. Two River’s Matt Hall, the race’s leading rookie, followed in just after midnight that night to begin his mandatory 36-hour layover in the former capital.
Dawson City’s Brian Wilmshurst is the only Yukon musher left in the Quest after Whitehorse’s Normand Casavant and Dawson’s Jean-Denis Britten scratched from the race on Sunday and Monday respectively. (Fairbanks, Alaska’s Mike Ellis was the third to scratch, dropping the field to 15 teams.)
Wilmshurst moved from 14th up to 11th over Wednesday night and was the leading Canadian in the race at press time on Thursday.
“It’s been a very good first half of the race,” said Sass. “My dogs are looking strong, healthy and happy. Things have gone pretty smoothly. I’ve been able to run my own race, which is probably the most important thing.
“My biggest plan is to just to keep running my team and not worry about my competition too much,” he added. “I have a little bit of a lead here, which helps me to do that.
“If I can continue running my dogs at my schedule, I think that’ll be my best bet.”
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