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History suggests Baker will be challenged

Mike Campbell
Eight-year-old Kevin Apok of White Mountain holds a John Baker sign as he waits for the musher to arrive March 14, 2011.
Photos by BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News
Ramey Smyth comes into the White Mountain checkpoint in second place March 14, 2011 during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Iditarod fans looking to compare how John Baker and Ramey Smyth match up mano-a-mano don't have to reach deep into Iditarod history.

Just last year, Baker left White Mountain at 12:16 p.m. in fifth place. Smyth left at 1:30 p.m. in sixth place. The difference in prize money -- $2,800.

Baker prevailed -- although Smyth sliced a 74-minute margin to 41 minutes.

Can the Willow musher crank it up one more notch to overcome a 51-minute disadvantage this morning?

Seven years earlier the two mushers had another battle -- this time with seventh place on the line. In that race, Baker left White Mountain with a 66-minute lead, but was passed enroute to Nome. Smyth reached the finish line 23 minutes ahead of Baker -- and pocketed an additional $2,857 for the effort.

Smyth has won the award for the fastest time from Safety to Nome a race-record seven times -- 2009, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001, 1997, 1995. Iditarod fans have noticed.

"This race could be decided on Front Street," said Iditarod veteran Aaron Burmeister, who will be in the crowd on Front Street watching. "We have a heck of a race on our hands.

"Those are two of the toughest racers in the sport, but between White Mountain and Nome, I'd much rather be racing against John than Ramey Smyth. The joke among mushers is that you want Ramey three hours behind you by the time you reach White Mountain."

Burmeister is a 12-time Iditarod finisher whose last race was his best -- seventh place in 2009. He believes that Smyth pushed his team to the limit racing the 190 miles from Unalakleet to White Mountain on less than three hours rest and staying in contact with Baker.

"John did a very good job of maintaining what he had and not losing more," Burmeister said.

Both mushers' teams traveled exactly the same speed between Koyuk and White Mountain on Monday, but Burmeister thought that the eight-hour mandatory rest in White Mountain might rejuvenate Smyth's team.

"Ramey is certainly a master at closing," Burmeister said. "Whether he can make up a 50-minute deficit remains to be seen, but if there's anybody in this sport who can do it, it's Ramey Smyth."

Baker can leave at 12:03 a.m. , Smyth at 12:54.

If Baker matches his fastest White Mountain-to-Nome time over the last decade, expect a finish around 9:30 a.m.

Don't count out Smyth The positions they were racing for and the number of dogs they had may have varied, but one thing hasn't -- in the last 10 years, Ramey Smyth has been faster than John Baker from White Mountain to Nome:

2010: Smyth by 40 minutes

2009: Smyth by 1 hour, 43 minutes

2008: Smyth by 1 hour, 27 minutes

2007: Smyth by 55 minutes

2006: Smyth by 8 minutes

2005: Smyth by 1 hour, 51 minutes

2004: Smyth by 2 hours, 19 minutes

2003: Smyth by 1 hour, 39 minutes

2002: Smyth by 1 hour, 41 minutes

2001: Smyth by 2 hours, 1 minute