RUBY -- Pushing his dog team all the way to the Yukon River before taking his mandatory daylong layover was Denali Park musher Jeff King's first-choice plan if his dogs, the trail and the weather held out, he said.
"This was the main Plan A," King said while washing down filet mignon with Tasmanian sparkling white wine, $3,500 cash stacked in front of him at the village community hall. "I've always maintained if you're sure the trail is good and your dog team's not tired, there's no reason to stop."
The money and a gourmet, five-course meal courtesy of chef Bobby Sidro and the Millennium Alaskan Hotel are King's prize for making it here in first place.
He has plans on winning more in Nome: his fifth Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race championship, which would tie him with Rick Swenson for the most wins.
And even though some veteran mushers have questioned King's strategy, calling it a low-probability gamble, King said he's not worried that his team will lose its gumption late in the race.
Just before the chef served dessert -- a roasted pear crème brulee tart -- King said he still thinks he can win. But he'll be looking over his shoulder.
"If there's anything I know, it's don't underestimate your competition, because it's keen," he said.
Also in Ruby with him were Sonny Lindner, who also took his 24-hour layover at that checkpoint, and Martin Buser, who rested 230 miles earlier in Nikolai and was the third musher to get there.
Buser arrived in Ruby about 6:45 p.m., telling volunteers he would take his eight-hour layover that all mushers are required to take on the Yukon River.
That means Buser can leave at 2:44 a.m. Friday. King is not allowed to leave until 8:27 a.m., and he will still have to take an eight-hour break before Unalakleet. Lindner can leave at 7:41 a.m.
"I just like to race," King said. "How far can you do it? How long can you do it at the maximum pace? That's exactly what all of this has been about. We're all deciding, 'How do we do this, to go the furthest on the finite amount of energy?' "
"It is not clearly a mistake to have done what I have done."
Earlier in the day in Takotna, 2014 Yukon Quest champion Allen Moore questioned the strategy of the frontrunners who had bypassed that checkpoint and its famous good food to mush all the way to Ruby before "taking their twenty-fours," as the mushers say.
After putting booties on his young team Thursday morning, Moore was checking his dogs in minus-9 temperatures, preparing to leave Takotna after his 24-hour break.
Because he is running puppies, Moore is more focused on learning what the dogs can do than on winning another 1,000-mile race. But like many others, Moore weighed in on the odds of winning the Iditarod the way King and Lindner were running.
"Well, I would gamble on a different way of it, myself. I mean, right now, for people looking at it, it probably looks pretty good for that person: Jeff (King). It just hasn't worked before," Moore said. "Personally, I don't think it'll work. A lot of times, dogs decide they want to quit on you, because you pushed 'em so hard.
"... But he still has a lot of dogs and he still has a lot of speed. He's thinking he can do it."
Moore thinks Aliy Zirkle, his wife and kennel mate, can do it too. Zirkle is running 12 of the 14 dogs on Moore's winning Quest team, and she's right on schedule, he said.
"We decided a long time ago that somebody's going to have the No. 1 team that we think can win a race in every race," Moore said. "She's got her eyes set on Iditarod."
Zirkle had set out from Takotna the night before with a rested and eager team that, unlike some, ran straight and fast on the trail out of the village. Moore had started the dogs howling before the run.
"It get's 'em fired up," Moore said Thursday. "It's kind of like a pre-run deal for us ... Time to get after it."
LOTS OF MILES
Zirkle is not the only one hoping to chase down King and the rest at the front of the pack. Mushing into the Cripple checkpoint Thursday were the champions of the last two races, 2012 winner Dallas Seavey and father Mitch, the 2013 winner, in that order and 15 minutes apart.
Dallas hurriedly spread out hay for his dogs in a chilly 10- to 15-mph wind. He said his team looked "skookum" and that it was possible they'd be the ones breaking records.
"Honestly, I'm having a blast driving 'em, and you can only run the dogs to the best of their ability, and if that's good enough for a win, that's good enough for a win," Dallas said. "There's a lot of race ahead of us. There's a lot of miles, and this isn't even halfway yet. If those guys can get that much of a lead in the first half, what's to say we can't get it back in the second half?"
When he passed his dad on the trail, they didn't really talk, Dallas said.
"I guess I said hi. I figured I'd save the long-winded conversations for here," he said.
But that didn't happen, because Mitch didn't stick around. His team ran hard into the checkpoint and he only stopped long enough to grab half a bale of hay, shove bottles of fuel into his sled bag and fill his thermos with hot water. A race official mentioned that Mitch was about to leave his dog food ladle on the ground.
"There's a place for everything, it's just not a big enough place," Mitch said.
Mitch looked over the dogs, checking their lines, and then he was off on the heels of Hugh Neff, Nicolas Petit and Kelly Maixner, who'd left earlier.
Reach Casey Grove at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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By CASEY GROVE