Whitehorse’s Hans Gatt is the Brett Favre of the Yukon Quest.
Not only is he extremely well accomplished in the 1,600-kilometre race, and a little longer in the tooth than most of his competition, it seems each year after finishing the race he says he’s retiring from it.
However, the four-time Austrian-born champion, who last year set a new race record of nine days, zero hours and 26 minutes, beating 2009’s record run by Sebastian Schnuelle by 23 hours and 54 minutes, is back to defend his title.
“Last year when I finished the race, I had this race in Wyoming in my mind, so that’s what I was going to do this year,” said Gatt. “But then things changed with my sponsorship – Eagle Pack (Natural Pet Foods) started sponsoring the Iditarod this year, so we had to go back and focus on long-distance races again. That kind of changed everything.
“I had to focus on the Iditarod, which meant I couldn’t go down to the states. They have different race formats and you have to train your dogs differently.
“So I thought, I might as well sign up for the Quest again.”
Gatt, 52, one of only three Yukoners in the field of 25 mushers, won his first Quest title – the first of three in a row – in 2002. He finished second in 2006 and 2007.
Alaska’s Lance Mackey, the only other musher to win the Quest four times, is not entered in this year’s race. But it doesn’t sound like Gatt is missing the rivalry.
“It doesn’t matter to me one bit. I showed last year that I can beat him,” said Gatt. “We had a great race last year. If he was here, that would be good, but it doesn’t matter to me. There’s plenty of stiff competition here.
“Traditionally the race has always been faster from Whitehorse to Fairbanks, however, last year we turned that completely upside down. It always takes perfect conditions to set new records, but I don’t know if we can get close to the time we set last year.”
Taking on the four-time champ is fellow Yukoner Michelle Phillips, 42, from Tagish.
“I’m looking forward to it, I have a solid team, a lot of veterans,” said Phillips. “It’s been a good snow year, it’ll be a nice trail. You always worry about overflow, but the temperature is supposed to drop, so that looks favourable.
“Overflow is when it comes up through the cracks and it can be bad sometimes. You can be up to waist in water.
“I like going from Whitehorse to Fairbanks; I like that direction,” she added.
A four-time participant in the Quest, Phillips’ best results are fourth in 2008 in and fifth in 2009. She skipped last year’s race to try her hand in the Iditarod, coming in 27th out of 71 teams.
“They’re pretty expensive (races), so I decided to focus on the Iditarod – it was my rookie year and I wanted to check it out,” said Phillips. “I made some wrong moves as far as strategy went.”
Whitehorse’s Didier Moggia is going for his third Quest attempt, not finishing in 2008 or the following year. In 2009, Moggia, 50, withdrew from the race in Dawson, having started the race while ill.
“In 2009 I was sick when I started and I made a lot of mistakes, and I was very, very tired when I arrived in Dawson,” said Moggia. “I had diarrhea and that’s trouble. So I decided to try again and see what happens.
“Diarrhea on the trail is so bad.”
Moggia has competed in – and finished – the Quest 300 race in 2006 and last year’s Tustumena 200 in Anchorage, Alaska.
“Every time I try the Quest I make a mistake, so I need to make some corrections,” he added.
Back for his 11th run in the Quest is Hugh Neff, a quasi-Yukoner who splits his time between Tok, Alaska, and the Annie Lake area.
“My girlfriend has a place out there and I do a lot of training there,” said Neff of Annie Lake. “For me, I’m not a Yukon musher or an Alaska musher, I’m a Quest musher. I do a lot of racing, but the Quest will always be No. 1 in my heart.”
Over his Quest career, Neff, 43, had his best result in 2009, finishing second. He also was third last year and in 2005. (Last year he finished third in the Iditarod.)
Though always a strong contender, Neff isn’t concerned with being the first over the finish line.
“I’m not too worried about it,” he said. “I have a great dog team and you do as well as your dogs can do. But if the magic is there anything is possible. I don’t focus on winning a race, I just enjoy life and the opportunity we have every year to do what we love so much. Win or lose, I’m always having fun and that’s what’s important to me.”
The 28th annual Yukon Quest Sled Dog Race will kick off Saturday at Shipyards Park in Whitehorse. The first musher will leave the start line at 11 a.m.
Contact Tom Patrick at email@example.com