Long a top contender, Baker finally wins the Iditarod

Kotzebue musher sets race record in first victory.

March 15, 2011 

To the sound of Native drummers and cheering fans, John Baker and his team of record-setting huskies claimed victory in the 39th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race this morning in Nome, ending Lance Mackey’s string of four victories and securing the first win by a Northwestern Alaska musher in the 1,000-mile race across Alaska.

Baker crossed the line at 9:46 a.m., finishing the race that began March 6 in Willow in 8 days, 18 hours, 46 minutes, 39 seconds and slicing three hours off the previous record.

“I feel good. Real good,” Baker said in the finish chute. “Running a team like this, there’s nothing better. They are willing to climb any obstacle and make the most of it. I’m really proud of them.”

Baker finished with 10 dogs, including one that got tangled just before the finish line.

Baker left his sled and walked to the front of his team, took the dog by its harness and led it under Nome’s famed burled arch. Ahead of them, Baker’s black lead dog Velvet wagged its tail.

“Good dogs! Good dogs!” someone in the crowd of Front Street spectators said.

“I think so,” Baker said.

Sixty-four minutes later, Ramey Smyth of Willow arrived with a team of eight dogs for his best finish in 17 races. He also broke the previous race record.

Third-place finisher Hans Gatt finished at 3:24 p.m.

Baker, a 48-year-old from Kotzebue, pulled away from Smyth on this morning’s 55-mile run from White Mountain to Safety. In doing so, he eliminated Smyth’s chances of sprinting past him on the 22-mile stretch between Safety and Nome, which Smyth dominates with regularity.

Instead of the down-to-the-wire finish anticipated only a day earlier, Front Street belonged to Baker, and Baker alone.

“I didn’t figure I had the race for sure. I didn’t allow myself to think like that,” Baker said. “I just needed to take care of my own business. Take care of running the dogs. Make sure that they could arrive here in the quickest possible way and being fair with them, not asking too much of them.

“If I can do that, then I didn’t feel we would have any problems. And that’s the way it worked out.”

Baker took advantage of near-perfect weather and a team toughened by life above the Arctic Circle to erase Martin Buser’s 2002 race record of 8 days, 22 hours, 46 minutes, 2 seconds. Buser’s record came on the Iditarod’s northern route, while Baker’s came on the southern route, which typically produces slower times.

“I didn’t have any thoughts about breaking the record,” Baker said. “That dawned on me either last night or this morning.

“And when Martin initially set that record, I was third that year (and) a special friend of ours, Ramy Brooks, was second. So it was actually a special time. So breaking the record was definitely icing on the cake.”

Smyth said he entered the Iditarod aiming to win. He just didn’t know that posting the second-fastest time in history wouldn’t be enough.

“It’s a little hard not to win,” he said. “But there’s no person in this world that I’d rather be beaten by, if I came in second, then John.”

As he talked, someone wished Smyth a happy birthday.

When was it?

“Today, I guess,” Smyth said.

It’s hard to think straight when you’ve slept roughly five hours in six days.

“About the least sleep I’ve gotten in any Iditarod,” he said.

Mushers at the front of the pack endured strong winds at various parts of the trail but were aided by clear weather and temperatures that were mild but not so warm that they sapped energy from the dogs. Baker’s dogs earned rave reviews at every checkpoint for their appetites and eagerness.

“At Iditarod I saw that John’s dogs were barking to go and nobody else’s were,” Smyth said. “He’s just done a 120-mile run. His dogs are barkin’ to leave. He’s trying to put his pants on and they’re trying to pull the hook.

“They didn’t even wait for him to tell them to go, they were just going to go to Nome without him.”

Velvet and Snickers, a pair of hardy, black dogs, shared the lead for most of the race, just as they did last year when Baker finished fifth.

“They ran last year’s race in lead all by themselves the whole way. And this year, I gave Velvet a break two times, for two runs. And other than that, they run the race in lead all by themselves,” Baker said.

“They say around the kennel I am a pretty lazy musher,” he added with a chuckle. “It’s pretty easy to leave them in the lead year-round.”

Running dogs born and trained on the coast, their fur thick and their durability unquestioned, Baker delivered on the promise he has shown since becoming a race regular in 1996.

In 14 previous races, he finished in the top 10 on 11 occasions and was 11th on another. Last year, Baker was in contention until he veered off the trail near Cripple, losing precious hours. This time, with GPS tracking devices allowed for the first time, the only thing Baker lost was his pursuers.

For a while, that group included Hans Gatt, Hugh Neff and Sebastian Schnuelle, all coming off a brutally tough Yukon Quest. But in the end, only Smyth hung with Baker, and even then, only a supreme effort from Smyth’s dwindling dog team could catch Baker.

Smyth dropped one dog in White Mountain and another in Safety, leaving him with eight, yet he still managed to better Buser’s old record.

In the last one-third of the race, Baker built a lead of an hour or two, small enough to keep things interesting but big enough that others were forced to cut their rest time if they wanted to stay within striking distance.

Sleep-deprived and rushing to keep up with Baker’s endurance team, Smyth said he’s proud he “gave everything I had,” but figured he made tactical errors such as resting too little or too much at certain checkpoints.

Smyth’s time of 8 days, 19 hours, 50 minutes, 59 is the second fastest in history and just the fourth that dipped under the nine-day mark. The only other sub-nine-day finish was registered last year by Mackey (8 days, 23 hours, 59 minutes, 9 seconds).

Smyth trailed Baker by 50 minutes out of White Mountain and was considered a threat to catch Baker because of his famous finishing kick -- in seven races, he has won the prize for the fastest time from Safety to Nome.

But by the end of the 55-mile run to Safety, the gap was 75 minutes. Baker covered the stretch in 6 hours, 43 minutes to Smyth’s 7:14.

In winning, Baker proved that the Iditarod is not just a race for small and wiry mushers. Baker weighs in at 220 pounds -- that’s two DeeDee Jonrowes and about one-and-a-half Lance Mackeys.

An Inupiaq, Baker is the fourth Native to win the Iditarod and the first since Jerry Riley in 1976. Three of the first four Iditarod winners were Natives -- Emmitt Peters won in 1975 and Carl Huntington in 1974.

For being the first musher to cross under Nome’s famed burled arch that marks the finish line, Baker will collect a prize of $50,400, plus a new Dodge pickup. The prize money boosts his all-time Iditarod winnings to more than half a million dollars -- $507,722.

While this year’s race produced a record time and mostly cooperative weather, it was not without its difficulties.

Paul Gebhardt, a prerace favorite from Kasilof, scratched early in the race in Nikolai, citing the best interest of his dogs. Mitch Seavey, the 2004 champion from Sterling, bowed out in Ophir after cutting several fingers while slicing open a bale of straw for his dogs.

And Mackey, winner of four in a row, slipped out of contention when kennel cough and other problems decimated his team. The Fairbanks musher left Elim in 16th place this morning -- about 120 miles from the finish -- with just seven dogs. Six are required at the finish line.

Gatt had left White Mountain this morning at 3:34, four hours ahead of Willow’s Dallas Seavey.

Seavey, the winner of last month’s Yukon Quest, left White Mountain at 7:25 a.m., an hour ahead of Tok’s Hugh Neff (8:28 a.m.) and Whitehorse’s Sebastian Schnuelle (8:34 a.m.). Unless Neff or Schnuelle have the speed to catch Seavey, they appear destined to duke it out for fifth place.

Baker becomes the 18th person to win the Iditarod championship. He drew crowds and cheers along the coast from fans excited at the prospect of victory for someone who is both Native Alaskan and a product of Alaska’s west coast. At the finish line, he worked the snow fence lining Front Street like a politician, shaking hands, signing autographs, dispensing smiles.

“I can’t wait to go home and be around all my friends and family up there in the northwestern part of the state,” Baker said.

Kyle Hopkins reported from Nome and Beth Bragg from Anchorage.

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