RUBY -- Late Friday night, Lance Mackey was more than 50 miles behind Iditarod leader Aliy Zirkle. His go-to sled dog, Maple, was in heat and driving the rest of the team bonkers. Even the zipper on his jumpsuit was broken.
The Mackey comeback, it seems, will have to wait another year.
"I had similar issues last year. I'm down on dogs again," Mackey said. "I had a ... breeding frenzy from the starting line that basically wore my dog team out."
A fifth Iditarod victory is out of the question, he said.
"Not even close."
Mackey blames himself. Maybe he should have dropped Maple, a favored lead dog, early in the race. There were other leaders, he said. Instead, his team dogs chewed at harnesses during stops and refused to snack, distracted by Maple.
Mackey, who had dropped six of his 16 dogs, reached Nulato at 6:09 p.m. Saturday. By then, the chase pack was at Kaltag, 47 miles ahead, and Zirkle had already spent an hour on the trail out of Kaltag, headed toward Unalakleet.
Mackey, 41, is a fan favorite and a mushing maestro. He is the only person to win the Iditarod and Yukon Quest in the same year -- something he did twice -- and the only person to win each of those races four times in a row.
His streak of Iditarod victories ended last year, when he finished 16th. On Saturday, he reached Nulato in 25th place.
So who does Mackey think will win this year? You'd be surprised.
"If I had to put my money on a dark horse, I'd say Sigrid (Ekran). Her team looks incredible," he said. "Pete Kaiser looks pretty interesting. I hate to say Dallas Seavey. I really do, because he's not my favorite guy."
Mackey, who's not known for pulling punches, says he thinks Dallas is "cocky and obnoxious."
Conversely, Mackey said Aliy Zirkle would be "the perfect person" to represent the sport as the Iditarod champion but he suspects the musher may fade late in the race.