Mackey's famed lead dog retires

March 19, 2009 

NOME -- With more than 12,000 miles of racing and countless miles of training under his paws, life is finally about to slow down for Larry the lead dog.

A 9-year-old bombproof canine, Larry helped Lance Mackey win a third straight Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Thursday. It will go down as the last race of Larry's career.

Mackey is forcing the golden harness-winner into retirement.

"Even if he wants to do another, I'm not going to let him," said the 38-year-old Fairbanks musher. "He's got a lot of miles under him."

Larry has finished eight Iditarods -- seven with Mackey and one with former Mackey neighbor Paul Gebhardt from Kasilof -- and four Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Races, not to mention dozens of middle-distance sled dog races.

His record as a leader is remarkable.

Larry has led teams in 10 races of 1,000 miles, and he has won seven of them. Along the Iditarod Trail, he has become almost as famous as Mackey.

On Tuesday, as Mackey approached the tiny village of Golovin on the Bering Sea coast, villagers called and called for the most popular dog in the team.

"He needs no introduction," Mackey said. "Everyone knows Larry."

Larry made a big name for himself in 2007 by becoming the dog to win the golden harness in both the Yukon Quest and Iditarod. His master made history that year, too, winning sled-dog racing's first Iditarod-Quest double.

Before Lance and Larry, it was thought impossible to win both of those ultra-endurance marathons in the space of about a month. Lance and Larry proved that doubly wrong with wins in 2007 and again in 2008, though it obviously wasn't easy.

When Larry posed for photographs with Mackey beneath the burled arch in Nome in 2007, the dog could barely keep his eyes open. Wearing a flowered necklace, Larry struggled to keep from falling asleep while sitting next to his master.

Asked what Larry might say if he could talk, Mackey answered, "I feel like a champion, but I'm kinda tired."

Winning is hard work, especially for a pace-setting lead dog. Life in this capacity didn't start for Larry, however, until after the 2003 Iditarod. That was the year Mackey took off from racing to recover from cancer. Gebhardt took Larry to Nome, but the dog ran in swing as he had for Mackey the year before.

A two-time Iditarod runner-up, Gebhardt did, however, spot Larry's potential.

"You know, that dog might turn into a good leader some day," he told Mackey.

A bit of a problem child as a pup, Larry was never expected to grow up to become the Comeback Kennel's superstar.

"He was just a goofy little pup, kind of an odd duck," Mackey said. "He reminded me of a guy I use to work with named Larry who was the same way -- kind of an odd duck, kind of goofy."

Had Mackey known how things were going to turn out, he wouldn't have had Larry neutered, but at the time, all Mackey saw were behavioral issues of the moment.

"He didn't eat that good. It was a no-brainer,'' the musher said. "I had no idea he'd be a good leader."

Larry's appetite improved after he got nipped. Maybe it helped him focus better, too, because Larry became the model for excellence in attitude, said Mackey.

The musher is now hoping some of that attitude has rubbed off on Maple. Maple is Mackey's new leader in training. The musher used Larry as a puppy professor of sorts at times on the trail this year to help teach the not quite 2-year-old female. Maple appears comfortable pacing the team all by herself out in the wilds but has some problems in towns and villages.

Maple powered the Mackey team along the Bering Sea ice on the outskirts of the city here, for instance, but faltered after the team turned onto Front Street. She wanted to go investigate the people behind the snow fences instead of continue on down the street to the finish line.

Mackey stopped the team, unsnapped Larry from a place in swing, and moved him up front to help her out. That was a fairly common drill this year.

In checkpoints, Mackey said, Maple didn't really know what to do. Instinct told her to find food and straw. She'd forget her most important job was to keep the team strung out. As a result, there were tangles.

After one such in Golovin, Mackey put Larry in lead next to Maple to help get the team out of the village.

"Old faithful," he said as he moved Larry to the front.

Mackey did, however, admit that Larry had a few lapses this year. When the team hit a bad stretch of trail on Golovin Bay, Mackey said, Larry actually tried to turn them around and go back.

"He pulled all sorts of boner moves," Mackey said. "It's a good indication he's had enough."

Still, Mackey admits it's going to be hard to hit the trail without Larry from here on out. In part because it remains to be seen whether the superstar lead dog has been able to pass his knowledge and attitude along to other dogs in the team.

"What I've noticed in the pattern of the (Iditarod) cycles is once a team loses their superstar leader, they falter," Mackey said. "Larry has been teaching the youngsters, so when he's gone I'll have someone to take his place."

At least that's the theory. Only time will answer whether it's the reality.

And what will Larry be doing when the experiment kicks off next year?

"He'll be lounging around and soaking up the rays,'' Mackey said.

A dog house in Arizona, maybe? A bottomless dog dish? Bottled water for his bowl?

Possibly. Whatever it is, Larry has earned it. He has been Mackey's best friend on the trail for a long time.

"Larry's strong,'' the musher observed during some of the toughest going in what was this year a very tough race. "(But) even if he wasn't, he still wouldn't let me down. I'm so proud of that dog.''


Find ADN sports reporter Kevin Klott at adn.com/sports/kklott or 257-4335.

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