Iditarod web sites
See related pages:
Daily News sports editor
Why do I feel like I'm playing darts here? Why do I feel like I am about to close my eyes and fling?
Perhaps because the competition to win the 27th annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is better than ever. Perhaps because no matter how many people you talk to, no matter how many horoscopes you read, no matter how analytical you get, the only way to handicap the top 20 finishers in order in the Iditarod is gut instinct.
Naming names is one thing. In 1997, I predicted 19 of the correct names in the top 20. In 1998, I predicted 19 of the correct names in the top 20. Not that I came anywhere close to predicting the exact order.
I doubt it's going to be any easier this year. To refresh your memory, there was a fairly big shake-up in the top 10 last year. Charlie Boulding, Mitch Seavey, John Baker and Ramey Smyth finished 3-4-5-6 behind winner Jeff King and runner-up DeeDee Jonrowe. Three-time winner Martin Buser finished seventh. Former champ Doug Swingley finished ninth. Five-time champ Rick Swenson finished 11th.
Were those results a fluke or a trend? If they were a fluke, then will the usual suspects restore order to the top five? If it was a trend, are Boulding, Seavey, Baker or Smyth poised to win? So you see why I am in a no-win position.
Nonetheless, I am obliged to guess.
I guess Martin Buser of Big Lake will be crowned the winner of the 1999 Iditarod, claiming his fourth championship. When I asked Buser who was going to win this year's Iditarod, he said, "You mean, who's going to be second?"
So the guy is confident.
But then, I might well have received that very same answer from a half dozen other mushers. Buser won in 1997, so if he wins this time his three-year record will be 1-7-1, virtually mirroring his 1992-93-94 finishes when he placed first, sixth, then first.
I do not see Seavey's ascension to fourth last year as a fluke, but a natural progression of improvement from his back-to-back 15th and 16th place years. The Seward musher has been building steadily and he comes from a mushing family - his dad, Dan, was third in the first Iditarod in 1973. I see him second in '99.
I am tossing out Lincoln, Mont. musher Doug Swingley's ninth place of 1998 and picking him third. Swingley, who in 1995 became the only Outside musher to win the Iditarod, has never been out of the top 10 in seven previous Iditarods. Word is that Swingley is more confident than ever about the quality of his team this year.
Filling out the top five I see defending champion and three-time titlist Jeff King of Denali Park in fourth, with DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow claiming her 12th straight top-10 finish in fifth.
Jonrowe acknowledged that there are many very good teams in the race, and that trail conditions could well decide things.
"Do you have the right team for the trail?" said Jonrowe.
The rest of the top 20 (I hope):
6) John Baker of Kotzebue; 7) Ramey Smyth of Big Lake; 8) Rick Mackey of Nenana (back in the race after three tries in the Yukon Quest, one of them a championship); 9) Joe Garnie of Teller (on the comeback trail, slowly but surely); 10) Rick Swenson of Two Rivers (you can never count out the Iditarod's all-time winningest musher).
11) Charlie Boulding of Manley (Boulding said he had a very tough year of training so I dropped him down from 1998); 12) Linwood Fiedler of Willow; 13) John Barron of Montana Creek (had a big Beargrease win this year); 14) Tim Osmar of Clam Gulch; 15) Vern Halter of Willow; 16) Peryll Kyzer of Willow (back after a year off); 17) Bill Cotter of Nenana; 18) Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof; 19) Sven Engholm of Norway; 20) Dave Sawatzky of Healy.
One guy to watch might be Ed Iten of Kotzebue. Iten finished 14th in the 1992 Iditarod and hasn't entered since. Hans Gatt of of British Columbia, by way of Austria, is a sleeper. And so is Sonny Lindner of Delta Junction, the former contender who last raced in 1993.
Also, a word for a rookie. Jon Little of Kasilof is a reporter for the Daily News who had excellent results in the Sheep Creek Lodge Christmas Classic (second) and the Copper Basin 300 (fourth) this winter. And besides, he tells me that he named a dog Lew - after me. (Though the dog is too young for his team.)
So there you have it, the script for the 1999 Iditarod. Am I sure that's the way it's going to go? Oh yes. Absolutely. Definitely.
* This column is the opinion of Daily News sports editor Lew Freedman