American musher Brent Sass is a three-time Yukon Quest 1,000 Mile International Sled Dog Race winner.
The resident of Eureka, Alaska, won the the 37th Yukon Quest on Feb. 11 when he and his team of 11 dogs crossed the finish line at 2:51 p.m. in Whitehorse at Shipyards Park. He previously won the race in 2019 and 2015.
The 1,600-kilometre race started in Fairbanks, Alaska on Feb. 1.
“I definitely earned this one,” said Sass. “It was really fun. I had a really good time. I think that both of us didn’t really know what the outcome was going to be until right now. It was a hell of a battle.”
He was led in this year by Morello and Woody.
“Morello has been one of my main leaders for a couple of years but Woody had never run in lead in a race before this race,” said Sass. “We had run him in lead a little bit this season but I just started experimenting with leaders on the Yukon just because it was such hard trailbreaking, a lot of different conditions. I just started experimenting with leaders and he just started shining the whole second half of the race.”
Sass said this year’s Quest involved much more trailbreaking than any of his other 12 entries in the race.
“There was no trail for 300 miles on the Yukon (River) — it was totally blown in,” said Sass in reference to the trail into Dawson City. “I’ve run 13 Yukon Quests and I broke trail on this Quest 10 times more than any of the other races put togethers, so it was a challenge.”
Tagish’s Michelle Phillips finished second in this year’s race, reaching the finish line at 6:51 p.m.
Although there was less than an hour difference between the two when they left the final checkpoint in Braeburn, the lead grew to four hours thanks to Sass and his team covering the final 160 km in one run — even with a significant snowfall to contend with.
“This was a slog. This was almost a 15-hour run coming into here,” said Sass. “Probably the last five hours of the run coming into Braeburn was in snow and whiteout conditions. I don’t know, I love it. I would rather have some challenges out there and I think my team is pretty tough.”
At the finish line, Phillips said conditions weren’t right for her team to try the final stretch in one run.
“I just knew with the conditions and the run before I wasn’t going to run it straight through,” said Phillips. “That was it, bottom line. That was my bottom line.”
She said she figured Sass would go for it, but that her dogs always come first.
“It’s a race — anything can happen in a race — and Brent might have decided to stop,” said Phillips. “I didn’t think he would, but he might have. But for my team, I needed to stop. So that was it and I was happy with that. It’s all good.”
Phillips improved on her previous best finish of fourth, and one upped Ed Hopkins, her husband.
“I’m happy that I beat my husband,” said Phillips with a laugh. “His best finish was third, so that’s important.”
Sass and Phillips were one and two at every checkpoint from Mile 101 onward.
Sass led coming into Mile 101 and Central, Alaska, but Phillips had the lead in Circle, Alaska.
Sass retook the lead in Eagle, Alaska, and held it right through to Dawson City.
On the run from Dawson City to Pelly Crossing, a distance of 338 km and the longest distance between checkpoints in the race, the two mushers adopted very different strategies.
Phillips made the trek in three runs, while Sass chose to split the distance into four.
“We ran different schedules leaving Dawson and mine was definitely a more conservative one,” said Sass. “It was a risk to sort of give her the edge. She only camped twice across that big stretch and we camped three times with five hour breaks, but it was that rest that we banked that gave us the edge in the end I think.”
Sass also added that he felt like once he caught and passed Phillips between Carmacks and Braeburn it was his race to lose.
“My team was faster. I mean, when I passed her I was sitting on Mandanna Lake waiting for a headlamp, trying to squeeze out every last little bit of rest,” said Sass. “When I saw her headlamp, I started my cooker up and made my last wet snack and bootied the dogs and she went by.
He said he got booties on his last four dogs and left 10 minutes after she passed.
“Within 10 or 15 minutes I caught her and passed her and just kind of left her in the dust,” said Sass. “I was pretty confident that we had the speed at that point and I wasn’t going to stop kicking and poling. She came in with a trail marker — that looks good, but that doesn’t do anything for you.”
Phillips said at the finish she lost her ski pole earlier in the race.
“I lost my ski pole before Pelly somewhere,” said Phillips. “I don’t know — I lost it somewhere — and then when we were in the Chain Lakes, he pulled out a ski pole and he started poling. And it was really a time that you needed a ski pole to kind of push your team through with that snow and I think that made a big difference.”
Cody Strathe finished third in this year’s Quest, reaching the finish line in Whitehorse at 7:35 a.m. on Feb. 12 with nine dogs on the line.
For his victory, Sass will win a bit more than US$18,930 — the US$100,000 prize pool pays out to the top 15 finishers, but with just 11 mushers in the race the remaining prize money will be distributed between the race finishers.
This year was Sass’s 13th Yukon Quest. He has finished 11 times, won three times (in 2015, 2019 and this year), scratched once in 2017 and withdrawn once in 2014.
Sass won the 2019 Quest in nine days, one hour and 13 minutes. He won the 2015 race in nine days, 12 hours and 49 minutes.
Only a handful of mushers have ever won the Yukon Quest three times or more.
Lance Mackey and Hans Gatt have each won the race a record four times — 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008 for Mackey and 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2010 for Gatt.
Allen Moore, running this year’s race and currently in fourth position, won three times — in 2013, 2014 and 2018.
Contact John Hopkins-Hill at email@example.com