The field for the 28th annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is the largest ever, with 81 mushers entered for the 1,100-mile mush from Anchorage to Nome.
The high quality of racers means I am going to be one lucky guy indeed if I correctly predict A) The winner of the 2000 race; and B) The top 20 finishers. But numbers alone aren't why I think this is the hardest race to handicap.
This is the 10th time I have closed my eyes and tried to peer into the future. My best year I named 19 of the top 20. I do not expect this to be my best year.
"This year promises to be highly competitive," Iditarod executive director Stan Hooley said Wednesday. "More exciting from a competitive standpoint than any other year."
That may be great for fans, but not for me. This is going to be harder than scoring well on the SATs. Sigh. Nobody ever said being in the Jeanne Dixon business was going to be easy.
But enough whining. I think any one of 10 mushers can win this sucker. I think any of 20 mushers can be in the top 10. And I think any of 30 or 35 mushers can make the top 20. Since the Iditarod is going to pay a share of the $525,000 purse down to 30th place (in addition to finisher's money), I decided I'm going to step even farther out on my favorite limb and select a top 30.
That means more people can be mad at me.
I expect defending champ Doug Swingley of Lincoln, Mont., to repeat as Iditarod champion. Swingley, who owns the race record for the fastest time to Nome and who last year set the race record for being the oldest winner, was clearly superior in 1999. He scored bonus points with me by toughing it out with broken ribs.
I picked the brains of Gareth Wright of Fairbanks, the former sprint mushing champion, and he agrees that Swingley will win. The rest of his top five: Charlie Boulding, Paul Gebhardt, Jeff King, and Rick Swenson. He picked his grandson, Ramy Brooks, to place 10th.
The rest of my guesses:
2) Rick Swenson of Two Rivers. In a conversation with Joe Redington Sr., the father of the Iditarod, about six weeks before his death, Joe told me he was picking Swenson to win this year. He could. Swenson has won in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Why not the 2000s?
3) Charlie Boulding of Manley. The oldest contender feels ready to grab his first Iditarod crown.
4) Jeff King of Denali Park. A very focused musher who stays hungry. He fell to seventh last year and didn't like it. He wants another title.
5) John Baker of Kotzebue. Baker should be in the top group for the foreseeable future.
6) Martin Buser of Big Lake. Buser is a hard-core competitor who will take risks to win.
7) Ramy Brooks of Healy. Back in the Iditarod after a year off, he won the 1999 Yukon Quest.
8) Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof. Been on an upward curve.
9) Vern Halter of Willow. Always hard to predict how he will fare, but he's always a contender.
10) DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow. Rebuilding with a young team after scratching in 1999.
11) Rick Mackey of Nenana. The 1983 champ could easily do better than this.
12) Bruce Lee of Denali Park. Been away from the Iditarod since 1996, but won the 1998 Quest.
13) Ed Iten of Kotzebue. A musher who will be a consistent threat near the top group.
14) Mitch Seavey of Seward. Hard to figure given his fourth in 1998 and 11th in 1999. But someone who looks like he will move into the highest echelon.
15) Ramey Smyth of Big Lake. At 24, the youngest musher considered a major factor.
16) Linwood Fiedler of Willow. Always around the front-runners.
17) Hans Gatt of Canada. Up-and-coming. Excels at mid-distance stage races.
18) Bill Cotter of Nenana. Been near the front of the pack, wants to get back.
19) Tim Osmar of Ninilchik. Been near the front of the pack and is working to get back. Will win this race one day.
20) Sonny King of South Carolina. Showing steady improvement.
21) Dave Sawatzky of Healy. A tough musher, never out of the money.
22) Mike Williams of Akiak. An inspirational musher who is very popular in the Bush.
23) Harald Tunheim of Norway. Last year's rookie of the year.
24) Russell Lane of Point Hope. A rookie last year who seems likely to improve.
25) John Barron of Willow. Won last two John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathons in Minnesota.
26) Mike Nosko of Wasilla. Nosko is a truck driver 40 hours a week but calls mushing his real full-time profession.
27) Raymie Redington of Wasilla. A savvy veteran whose father founded the race.
28) Juan Alcina of Willow. Steady the last two years in 24th and 25th.
29) Jerome Longo of Talkeetna. Jumps many spots each year he races, but this field is pretty tough.
30) Jon Little of Kasilof. Another rookie last year whose shorter-distance events peg him as someone on the rise.
* This column is the opinion of Daily News sports editor Lew Freedman. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org