Mackey Team Widens Lead at Iditarod

Monday, March 12th 2007, 6:20 am
By: News On 6

UNALAKLEET, Alaska (AP) _ Lance Mackey's team surged ahead of a tight pack of front-runners Monday during the final leg of the world's longest sled dog race.

Mackey is trying to prove a musher can win the 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race in the same year. That's the equivalent of racing a team from New York to Miami.

Mackey left Unalakleet about a half hour before defending champion and four-time winner Jeff King. Mackey widened the gap on the run to Shaktoolik, where he stayed five minutes before setting out across frozen Norton Sound to the town of Koyuk.

Three other teams were near. Paul Gebhardt, who finished third last year, arrived in Shaktoolik minutes behind Mackey. King and four-time winner Martin Buser pulled in an hour later.

The top teams arrived Sunday in Unalakleet on the wind-battered Bering Sea coast, marking the Iditarod's last, and often most brutal, stage.

More than 100 people, many bundled in parkas with large fur ruffs, stood in below-zero weather and icy winds to await the first musher into this checkpoint 261 miles from the finish line in Nome.

King was the first in Unalakleet, followed by Mackey, Buser and Gebhardt.

``Why wouldn't we want to push the pace in the biggest dog race in the world?'' said King, when asked about his dogs going 150 miles on the Yukon River into a brutally cold headwind with just five hours of rest.

``I am not asking more than what I trained,'' King said. ``I think they're tough.''

Mackey had passed Buser and Gebhardt on his way to Unalakleet. He knelt and hugged his lead dog after arriving in the checkpoint.

``They are starting to get fired up,'' Mackey said. ``They know if they perform well the next race they won't have to worry about getting there. They'll be driving in a new truck... I can almost smell that new truck smell.''

For coming in first, the winner of the 2007 Iditarod will get about $69,000 in prize money and a pickup truck worth more than $40,000. Mackey drives a 14-year-old truck.

Mackey _ trying to join father Dick and brother Rick in becoming an Iditarod champion _ didn't expect to even see Buser, never mind pass him.

``I knew when we got on the hard, fast trail we would pick up some time,'' he said.

Mackey stressed patience. Even so, as tired as he was, he found it hard to contain his excitement.

``Never before have I been so close,'' he said.

Buser, when asked how his team is doing, said: ``Not very good at all, but I'm here. I'm glad to be here.''

Buser, who was leading the race, ticked off his troubles. Problems ranged from having to carry tired dogs in his sled bag to losing his team to busting up his knee to one of his lead dogs getting badly injured in a dog fight.

``I haven't put a good run together,'' Buser said.

Eighty-two teams started the race in Willow. Nineteen have scratched in a race that is notable so far for a tough trail that has mushers withdrawing with broken bones and busted sleds. The winner is expected to arrive in Nome on Tuesday or later.