Iditarod field will be smallest since '99

Mike Campbell

When champion Lance Mackey tries to rewrite history once again in March, a leaner -- and perhaps meaner -- pack of Iditarod mushers will try to derail his bid.

Exactly how mean it is will play out on the 1,000 miles of the 39th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race from Anchorage to Nome. But with only 60 registered teams -- another two may arrive by mail within the week -- the field will be the leanest since 56 mushers lined up in 1999.

It will be an seasoned crew.

Only 12 rookies have entered -- making up just 20 percent of the field. That's the fewest rookie starters since a dozen lined up in 1999.

In the decade that followed, rookies averaged nearly a third of the field, which on five times ballooned to more than 80 starters.

"We've been working real hard to make sure that we have qualified applicants," said Chas St. George, the Iditarod director of public relations. "But the size of the field is the result of a lot of different things, including the economic conditions. This year to last year, the cost of staging this race has gone up dramatically."

For this year's Iditarod, rookies must:

• Finish in the top three-quarters of two approved qualifying races totaling at least 500 miles. In each race, the musher must finish with a time no slower than double that of the winner.

• Demonstrate mushing and wilderness skills during those qualifiers.

• Control a bank account fat enough to write a $4,000 check for the entry fee -- just one of many expenses that make an Iditarod bid formidable for many mushers.

Since the Iditarod field topped out at 96 starters in 2008, it's tailed off -- 67 the next year and even fewer for 2011.

But the decline hasn't meant a weakened race. Nine of the last year's top 10 finishers are back -- disregard all that loose retirement talk several musher bandied about last year.

However, the missing musher is one the race's all-time greats, Iditarod Hall of Fame member Jeff King of Denali Park, a four-time champion with an unparalleled record of excellence.

In 20 consecutive races, beginning in 1991, King has been outside the top 10 only three times with a trio of 12th places. He's also a former Yukon Quest champion and the all-time Kuskokwim 300 titleholder.

But perhaps the biggest loss for race organizers will be King's thrilling neck-in-neck battles with Mackey, which have at times extended the four-time defending champion to the max.

"I am not exactly sure what is going to happen next," King wrote on his Husky Homestead blog after finishing third in March with his fastest Iditarod ever, "but I assure you that it will be done with gusto, enthusiasm and compassion influenced by thousands of miles on the Iditarod Trails.

"It is hard to imagine that 29 years has passed since my first Iditarod finish. Nome looks much the same as I remember it in March of 1981 -- crowded tangles of power lines, cheering Nome residents and visitors. . . Iditarod week here is truly unlike any other place."

The race begins on Anchorage's Fourth Avenue on March 5, with Mackey of Fairbanks aiming for a record fifth-consecutive win that would tie him with Rick Swenson of Two Rivers as the winningest musher in race history.

Swenson, who will be 60 when the race starts, is among the entrees. So is Martin Buser of Big Lake, another four-time champion who could tie Swenson with a victory.

"This field for 2011, it's an extremely competitive field, one of the most seasoned fields in history," said St. George.

Reach reporter Mike Campbell at or 257-4329.