A young and little-known musher from Chugiak pulled off one of the biggest sled-dog racing upsets in years Monday morning, topping mushing maestro Lance Mackey at the Copper Basin 300 sled dog race.
Jake Berkowitz, 24, crossed the Paxson finish line at 11:46 a.m. with all but one of his 12 starting dogs to polish off the shocking victory. Mackey arrived at 1:01 p.m.
A 24-year-old who was raised in St. Paul, Minn., Berkowitz moved to Michigan in 2005 to work in the kennel of Iditarod veteran Ed Stielstra and nurture his mushing dream.
"It was one of those childhood dreams, like being a fireman or cowboy," he told the Iditarod Trail Committee website. "I just never thought it would happen."
After moving to Alaska, Berkowitz became a handler for veteran Anchorage musher Robert Bundtzen, who was also running a strong Copper Basin race on Sunday, and Zack Steer of Sheep Mountain.
His ascent up the learning curve was both steep and fast.
After starting his Iditarod career with a 65th place finish in 2008 he jumped up to 31st a year later.
Now he's beaten one of the greatest mushers in the history of the sport - and many other top racers.
Many of those top racers, it should be noted, use early season races like the Copper Basin to try new dogs and new approaches before the big-money races later in the season.
Because of the time need to build a championship dog team and the value of experience, newcomers seldom succeed in mushing.
The biggest shocks at major Alaska races over the last few decades include Libby Riddles historic victory in 1985 Iditarod; her previous best in that race was 18th. And the 1995 victory by 19-year-old Ramey Smyth in the Kuskokwim 300, topping four Iditarod champions, was also a shocker.
As always in sled-dog racing, the quality of a musher's dog team carries the day - and Berkowitz's strong performance in the Copper Basin 300 is no exception.
"He purchased all of Jon Little's dogs, and that's a proven dog team," four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser said by phone on Sunday. "Even though Jon only had a small kennel, he had really good dogs."
Little, the fourth-place finisher in the 2002, recently moved out of Alaska and sold off most of his animals.
Even before the purchase, though, Berkowitz could see his team jelling.
"The dogs are entering their prime now," he told the website Forward.com in 2009. "They're going to be a very scary team to race next year."
This year, Berkowitz has focused on the middle-distance races. He's entered in the Jan. 21 Kuskokwim 300, the world's richest middle-distance race, but is not on the roster for either the Iditarod nor the Yukon Quest.
Reach reporter Mike Campbell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4329.
By MIKE CAMPBELL