It's Iditarod weekend, a time for show dogs one day and race dogs the next.
Saturday's 10 a.m. ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage is all hype and glory. Mushers get a thunderous send-off as they begin the 1,000-mile journey to Nome. Dogs get love, sponsors get attention and spectators get to cheer a far-north version of March Madness that comes with bunny boots and bushy beards.
After the pomp comes the real race, beginning at 2 p.m. Sunday in Willow. After that, who knows?
Back is last year's entire top 10, plus a handful of others who fall into the top-contender category, people like four-time champion Jeff King, who won his ninth Kusko 300 championship in January and might have something to prove after scratching last year for the first time in 22 Iditarods.
The 41st annual Iditarod comes with no rankings, no bracket, no top seeds. Ask an expert in gee-and-hawing to handicap the race and you are likely to get hem-and-hawing.
Asked for his best guess, race director Mark Nordman paused for a long moment.
"I have 10 people that are going to win," he said finally. But he wouldn't say who.
Race analyst Joe Runyan, the 1989 champion, was only slightly more specific.
"The top 10 are all back," he said. "Six of them had the best finish of their career, and generally speaking they're all young and motivated.
"There's one wild card. Jeff King is back, he has reinvented himself and is being taken seriously."
Reigning champion Dallas Seavey of Willow, who turns 26 on Monday, leads the list of returners. He's the youngest champ in the history of a race in which Michael Jordan really could be a player at age 50.
"I don't think a 50- or 60-year-old has a disadvantage in this race," said Seavey, whose challengers last year included his dad, 53-year-old Mitch Seavey, who placed seventh.
Seavey called this year's field of 66 "exceptionally strong."
"It's a unique mix of young and old," he said, "and both are at their best and both are in their prime.
"There's no way to compete with experience but young mushers like me and (Pete Kaiser) have done this their entire lives -- 20-plus years, but we started when we were 5."
A couple of weeks ago, the Iditarod posted a notice on its website saying the race was on as scheduled.
The unusual announcement came after two things created some confusion. One was a New York Times article about the lack of early-season snow -- conditions that led to the cancellation of several mid-distance races and diminished training opportunities in Southcentral. The other was concern whether the Fur Rendezvous Open World Championship sprint race, held entirely in Anchorage, would have to be canceled because until mid-February, snow was sparse in town.
Iditarod spokeswoman Erin McLarnon said she posted the announcement after her brother on the East Coast called her upon hearing the Iditarod had been canceled. She figured it was time for some rumor control.
Nordman reiterated this week that this year's Iditarod was never in jeopardy and course changes were never considered.
"Everyone was so worried about the lack of snow," he said. "We never have considered changing anything about the race start in Anchorage."
The main cause of concern is the Dalzell Gorge between Rainy Pass and Rohn, where workers spent days clearing trees knocked down in a windstorm and building bridges, Nordman said.
Beyond that, he said, things look good right now.
"We have good trail up to Puntilla," he said. "There's plenty of snow through McGrath and too much snow in Iditarod and Shageluk. So far, we're set to go."
WHO'S NO. 1?
Racers wear bib numbers according to a random start order determined by a Thursday night draw.
No one wears No. 1. The No. 1 bib is ceremonial and is awarded in honor of someone each year. This year, it honors Jan Newton, the longtime Takotna checker who died last summer. She baked hundreds of pies and served thousands of meals to mushers over the years.
The first musher on the trail will wear bib No. 2. Four-time champion Martin Buser of Big Lake drew that number and will lead the parade of mushers out of Anchorage and Willow.
RACE OF CHAMPIONS
Buser is one of six Iditarod champions in the field of 66. He won titles in 1992, 1994, 1997 and 2002.
Others include both Seaveys (Dallas last year; Mitch in 2004), Lance Mackey (2007-10), King (1993, 1996, 1998, 2006) and John Baker (2011).
Mackey is one of just four mushers to win consecutive titles. The others are Rick Swenson (1981-82), Susan Butcher (1986-88) and Doug Swingley (1999-2001).
A purse of $600,000, up $50,000 from a year ago, is up for grabs for the top 30 finishers. Of that, $50,400 will go to the winner.
Say it takes nine days -- 216 hours -- for the winner to finish. He or she will have earned $233.33 per hour.
No one has reached millionaire status based on Iditarod winnings. The closest to doing so are King, whose winnings total $808,720, and Buser, who has won $751,320.
In addition to the prize money for the top 30, $1,049 will be awarded to each musher who finishes 31st or lower. The amount represents the symbolic distance of the Iditarod trail, with the 49 a nod to Alaska's status as the 49th state.
THE REAL DISTANCE
The Iditarod isn't 1,049 miles long. It isn't even 1,000 miles long.
According to the race's mileage chart, the race is 998 miles long -- and that includes the 11 miles that make up Saturday's ceremonial start.
So it's really 987 miles long, from the time the clock starts ticking in Willow to the time it stops in Nome.
The race distance has decreased because of various changes to the start over the years. The biggest one, perhaps, was the decision to move the restart from Wasilla north to Willow and eliminate the run through Knik. That was done after years of inadequate snow in the Wasilla area.
Nordman said the current mileage is based on local knowledge of the trail and data from GPS devices used by mushers.
Dallas Seavey isn't exaggerating when he says the Iditarod field is a mix of young and old.
This year's oldest musher is 73-year-old Jim Lanier of Chugiak, who last year won the $3,000 in gold awarded to the first musher to reach the race's halfway point. The youngest is 21-year-old Travis Beals of Seward.
Last year, three generations of Seaveys ran -- Dallas, Mitch and 75-year-old Dan, the family patriarch.
Mitch and Dallas are back this year and they aren't the only ones making the Iditarod a family affair.
There's Mike Williams Sr. and son Mike Williams Jr. Identical twins Anna and Kristy Berington. Brothers Ramey and Cim Smyth. Brothers Lance and Jason Mackey. Husband and wife Allen Moore and Aliy Zirkle.
This is the first year both Williamses are in the race. Mike Jr., 27, took his dad's spot in 2010 when Mike Sr., 62, had health issues and has been in every race since.
Mike Jr., who is among the top tier of mushers, probably won't see a lot of his dad on the trail. But he said he'll be thinking about him.
"Naturally I'll be a little worried about him, especially with the trail reports we've heard about the Gorge," Mike Jr. said. "Once we're through the Alaska Range it should be better."
Reach Beth Bragg at email@example.com or 257-4335.
Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race
Ceremonial start: 10 a.m., Fourth Avenue and D Street. Sixty-six teams start from downtown in two-minute intervals beginning at 10 a.m. and run through city streets and trails to Campbell Airstrip.
Willow restart: 2 p.m. Sunday
TV - GCI Cable 1
10 a.m. Saturday, with televised coverage starting at 9:30 a.m.
2 p.m. Sunday, with televised coverage starting at 1:30 p.m.
Ceremonial start video and more Iditarod coverage
By BETH BRAGG