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Record number sign up for Quest on opening day

FAIRBANKS, AlaskaReining Yukon Quest champ Lance Mackey is confident he’ll win next year’s race.

FAIRBANKS, Alaska

Reining Yukon Quest champ Lance Mackey is confident he’ll win next year’s race.

But in 2007, he may just have his work cut out for him, perhaps more so than the past two races.

At least that will be the case if Aaron Burmeister has anything to say about it — or, for that matter, William Kleedehn, Gerry Willomitzer, Dave Dalton or Peter Ledwidge.

Burmeister, a nine-time Iditarod veteran, signed on for the race Saturday along with 20 other dog drivers including Mackey, who was fourth to declare his intention.

Like Mackey, Burmeister was born into dog mushing and focused mainly on the Iditarod. But, also like Mackey, Burmeister wants to shake things up on the Quest trail in his rookie year.

Mackey won his rookie year in 2005.

Fairbanks musher Brent Sass was the first to sign up on Saturday in Fairbanks. He persevered through the raging blizzard earlier this year to win the Quest 300.

Veterans Willomitzer of Whitehorse and Kleedehn of Carcross were fifth and sixth to sign on, respectively. Kleedehn finished third in 2006 and second the year before. Dave Dalton, a perennial favourite from Healy, Alaska, also made the first day signup.

Sebastian Schnuelle and Catherine Pinard of Whitehorse, Michelle Philips of Tagish and Peter Ledwidge of Dawson are all returning Quest veterans from the Yukon, while Iditarod veterans J.T. Hessert, Devon Currier, Paul Ellering and Shane Goosen will test their skills and teams in the Quest for the first time in 2007.

Fellow Alaska rookies Benedikt Beisch and Bob McAlpine along with veterans Russ Bybee, Richie Beattie and Tom Benson will also pull the hook in the start chute this February in Whitehorse.

For Mackey, he won’t take any team lightly.

“You can’t overlook any team,” said the two-time champion. “The 2007 race will be as, or more, competitive than the past two. I think of every single team as competition.”

Sign-up order determines the order mushers will draw for their starting positions in the race, which starts Saturday, February 10 in Whitehorse.

Though Mackey said it would have been nice to be the first to sign up on Saturday, it really doesn’t make much difference.

“Hopefully, I’ll be first at the other end,” he chuckled. “That’s my plan anyway.”

Running mostly young dogs with little race experience in the upcoming Quest is also part of Mackey’s plan, but he’ll throw in a few experienced adults for balance and he said, nothing is set in stone.

His competitors know, however, that no matter what dogs Mackey chooses for the Quest, aside from his half dozen terriers and other smallish pet dogs, he’ll be pushing for win number three.

“Obviously Lance has some amazing dogs but you can never say what’s going to happen out there,” said Willomitzer, who finished fifth in 2006.

Like Mackey, Willomitzer plans to run both the Quest and Iditarod. Willomitzer was fifth to sign up on Saturday but was the first Yukon musher to do so.

If he makes it to the start line of the Quest, he’ll definitely bring his best team, he said.

Yukon Quest International manager Stephen Reynolds attributed the flood of eager mushers to the increased purse. Currently, the Quest purse has been raised to $200,000.

The 21 mushers who signed up on the first day is the most in 10 years, if not the race’s 23-year history, Reynolds said. And past trends show that the number on the first day of sign-up is usually doubled by the time the race starts.

“That could mean over 40 mushers, and that’s what we’d like to see,” he said, adding that the Quest’s ultimate goal is to have 50 mushers start the race.

The added money in the purse has attracted some Iditarod veterans who will be new to the Quest in 2007 — and bring some added publicity.

For returning Questers, signing up early was a way to show some gratitude for the added cash.

“I wanted to show my appreciation for the increase in the purse,” said Willomitzer. As for the roster thus far, Willomitzer, as usual, will simply focus on his own race.

“These guys shouldn’t be problem,” he said of his competition. “Aaron has run some good Iditarods and racing with him will be interesting for me being that I’m signed up for the Iditarod as well.

“Usually the Quest world and the Iditarod world don’t overlap much so we’ll see what happens.”

With the cool weather and rain in both Whitehorse and Fairbanks, mushers like Mackey and Willomitzer have already started fall training using an ATV. But, added Reynolds, anything can happen during training and especially when the season starts so “I’m not making any predictions.”

Of the 21 teams that registered on opening day, 11 did so in person; seven sent their application in and three others submitted their entries in advance.

So far, the field is made up of 10 rookies and 11 veterans.