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Kuskokwim 300 dog mushing race boasts record prize, elite contenders

Craig MedredAlaska Dispatch

With nearly two months remaining before mushers point their dog teams up the ice-covered Kuskokwim River, the world’s richest middle-distance sled dog race already boasts a top-flight field, lured by a record $110,000 purse.

Alaska's Kuskokwim 300 is the featured event of a series of races that lure mushers from across the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.  Each of the races – including the Bogus Creek 150 and the Akiak Dash – will see a 10 percent bump in their purses. The fat K300 purse – with the winner earning $22,000 -- typically draws some of the best racers in the state.

"While most races are holding steady or even lowering their race purses, the K300 has once again bucked the trends by raising our purse," race manager Zach Fansler said in a press release.

Among the 14 mushers who’ve already signed up:

•  Defending champion Rohn Buser, 23, who collected the $20,000 top prize in January by nipping 2011 Iditarod champion John Baker.

•  His father, Martin, a four-time Iditarod champion and two-time Kusko victor, who set the Kusko race record of just over 37 hours in his 1994 debut.

•  The sizzling runner-up duo of Allen Moore, who lost the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest to Hugh Neff by 26 seconds, and wife Aily Zirkle, who finished second to Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey after a ferocious back-and-forth struggle. Before his impressive Quest run, Moore was considered a middle-distance ace, with three Copper Basin 300 wins.

•  Jeff King, the winningest musher in Kusko history with eight titles to go with his four Iditarod championships.

•  A pair of Williamses from Akiak. Mike Jr., 27, was second in 2011, a mere second behind Gebhardt. His father, Mike Sr., will start in his 22nd Kusko, a race he has finished as high as fifth.

•  Ramey Smith of Willow, who set the mushing world on its head when he won the Kusko as a teenager in 1995. Coming off second- and third-place finishes in back-to-back Iditarods, the 37-year-old and the 49 dogs in his kennel may be peaking.

• Veteran musher Joe Garnie, 59, who will return to the Kusko after a 12-year hiatus.  Garnie, an Iditarod runner-up, first ran the Kusko in 1983 and twice finished third. 

The Kusko starts Jan. 18 in Bethel and finishes there, too. Racers head upriver, passing through Akiachak, Tuluksak, Aniak and Whitefish Lake before returning.