Who will win the 2008 Iditarod?

Some pre-race picks, for what it is worth

ANCHORAGE — Two mushers showed a little spark, each threatening to win the 2008 Iditarod, as they stood at the podium and drew their starting positions Thursday night at Sullivan Arena.

One was defending champion Lance Mackey, who told the audience, and especially the mushers seated there, that if anyone thinks for a moment that his dogs are tired from their recent tough win in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest, they better think again. He’s got a surprise for them. His team is ready. Mackey will start with bib number 6.

Five spots behind him, wearing bib 11, will be one of the teams Mackey passed last year on his way to his story-book victory: Jeff King. King fired back from the podium, making sure first that Mackey was in the room to listen. He told the crowd that during the 2007 race, at the key turning point in Unalakleet, Mackey had strode past him, saying simply, “Are you scared now?”

Thursday night in the Sullivan arena, King replied, “I don’t give up that easily, Lance,” and he pulled out a small iPod with tiny speakers, leaned the stage microphone down, and filled the arena with so-familiar trumpet intro to the theme from “Rocky.” King, a four time champion, compared himself to the underdog New York Giants and said sometimes past champions come back to win.

It was all in good fun, but those moments show the desire to win runs deep among the top competitors. Only one of them will ultimately succeed, obviously. But looking down the list of entrants, its just as obvious that any one of 10 to 15 teams may wind up hugging their garland-covered leaders under the burled arch in Nome.

Who will do it? You want me to guess? I failed last year. I thought Mackey, Paul Gebhardt and Zack Steer would be in the top 10 or top 20, but they finished first, second and third. I had Martin Buser and King pegged as sure winners, and they finished fourth and fifth. Does close count?

I figure the winner in 2008 will be among these teams: Mackey, Gebhardt, King, Buser, Kjetil Backen, Mitch Seavey, Ed Iten and John Baker. That’s where I’d lay my odds. Other teams have a chance to pull an upset, but I think Mackey is unique in being able to roar to the front the way he did last year. Look for Steer, Ken Anderson, Ramey Smyth and Cim Smyth to possibly have a magic run and pull off another seemingly impossible upset. Another name to throw into the mix is DeeDee Jonrowe, who had an impressive team last year but broke her hand on the way to Rainy Pass. She hasn’t raced this winter and I haven’t talked to her yet, so she’s an unknown to me.

But, boy, that sure leaves a field of deep, deep talent both among dogs and the humans who pilot them from the back of the sled. Who among these will have a magic run and surge into the top 5: Jessie Royer, Matt Hayashida, Aaron Burmeister, Aliy Zirkle, Jessica Hendricks, Sigrid Ekran, Hans Gatt, Jason Barron, Ray Redington, Jr., Ryan Redington, Rick Swenson, Louis Nelson, Sr., or Ed Stielstra?

Teams that some people might overlook, but could push well into the top 20, include Jason Mackey, William Hanes, Rick Casillo and Jon Korta. Mackey has been working with his brother, Lance, for a decade since they both moved to the Kenai Peninsula. Jason still lives there while Lance moved north to Fox, outside Fairbanks. He’s been working hard all winter to field a strong team, and, being a Mackey, he has the skills. William Hanes finished 20th two years ago and is gifted at managing his small kennel and running his own race. Korta was among a group of talented mushers who got delayed last year at Rainy Pass by a powerful storm. He was a rookie, and the experience should serve him well — if he can get his team past his home town of Galena on the Yukon River. Casillo is another veteran who has been frustrated by circumstances; he got delayed by the same storm last year and is motivated to have a good race.

Toss in Sylvia Willis for good measure. She showed a lot of toughness last year. Also watch Rick Larson and Sebastian Schnuelle.

Rookie of the year
Keep an eye also on Rohn Buser, Melissa Owens, Molly Yazwinski, William Kleedehn and Sven Haltmann. One of these should be rookie of the year. Some fans see the name Kleedehn, roll their eyes and say, “There’s your top rookie.” After all, Kleedehn has 11 Yukon Quests and his dogs don’t know how to run slow. But he’s also running a young team this year and may be more motivated to keep the team large and happy, being patient this year with the idea of racing in 2009. Kleedehn is a smart dog man.

Owens, a junior Iditarod winner, is as tough and steady as they come. She, like Rohn Buser, received her literal baptism into long-distance racing in this year’s sopping wet Kuskokwim 300. Haltmann is a former handler for Martin Buser who’s built his own racing kennel over the last couple of years. He’s been incredibly patient and you get the sense that he has yet to put the pedal to the metal in a race. Yazwinski seems to have all the elements — raised on a dairy farm, a veterinary career in her future and an accomplished distance runner in college. She’s running some outstanding dogs from the kennel of mushing legend Susan Butcher, and she’s done very well in early season races.

I wouldn’t want to have any one of those four teams on my tail. I think it may turn into a match between Buser and Yazwinski for rookie of the year honors. But who knows. Maybe Laura Daugereau from Washington state will pass them all. Honorable mention goes to Zoya Denure, but she’s had an up-and-down season — scorching the trail in the GinGin 200 but having some setbacks in later races.

Now comes the fun part — we get to watch the race unfold over the next two weeks. So sit back, grab a snack and enjoy the show.

Yazwinski, Linton claim Cabela’s Outfitter awards
The 2008 Iditarod had its first awards Thursday, well before the dogs hit the trail. Cabela’s drew two names for its coveted Outfitter Award, which grants a $1,000 gift certificate for a rookie and a veteran. Molly Yazwinski of Fairbanks won the rookie award and Bruce Linton of Kasilof, signed up for his second Iditarod, won the veteran’s award. (Linton, a diabetic, said he would be testing a new insulin pump during the race that should be able to respond to his insulin needs on the fly.)