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Mackey falters badly as Yukon Quest leaders near halfway

Suzanna Caldwell

The Yukon Quest International Sled Dog race might only be a few days old, but things are already heating up as top racers jockey for position. Seemingly out is Lance Mackey, a four-time Quest champion and four-time Iditarod champion. Despite that stellar resume, the Fairbanks musher is struggling to keep up with a surging pack of race leaders in the 1,000-mile race from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, to Fairbanks, Alaska.

Mackey, who finished third in the Quest last year -- his worst in six races -- was racing ninth coming out of the Yukon checkpoint of Pelly Crossing, about 250 miles into the race. He had nine dogs in team after dropping five, four in previous checkpoint.

Mackey told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in Carmacks his team was bothered by warm weather coming into the small Yukon River community. Temperatures in the region were slightly above freezing Sunday, almost tropical in the sport of sled dog racing, particularly in this part of Canada and Alaska.

Mackey's dogs revolt

“Have you ever seen a dog give you the middle finger? They can,” Mackey told the News-Miner.

While Mackey struggled in the middle of the pack, 2012 champ Hugh Neff of Tok and runner-up Allen Moore of Two Rivers headed toward the halfway point Dawson City in a familiar position – neck in neck.

Neff led Moore by about 45 minutes leaving the Stepping Stone hospitality stop, an unofficial race checkpoint. The duo had the closest finish in race history a year ago when Neff nipped Moore to win by only 26 seconds.  They were followed closely by 2012 Quest Rookie of the Year Jake Berkowitz.

The Moore-Neff duo had jockeyed back and forth since the start of the race -- Moore was first into the checkpoints of Braeburn and Pelly Crossing; Neff was first into Carmacks.

Neff told KUAC in Carmacks he's only rested four hours in 177 miles. That's intentional, he said, because he's trying to distance himself from the competition.

Moore, however, wasn't buying it.

“Usually that bites you in the butt in the end and if he keeps doing it, I’ll bet a lot of money it bites him in the butt again,” he told KUAC.

Watching Neff

All eyes are on the surging Neff. Two years ago, he led for almost 800 miles before his dog team stalled on challenging Eagle Summit. The veteran distance racer couldn't get them to climb the summit’s famously steep pitch. He struggled on the summit for almost a day before withdrawing from the race following the death of a dog in his team. Afterwards, Neff swore he’d never again compete in the Quest during odd numbered years (the years the race, which alternates starts between Whitehorse and Fairbanks, begins in Canada). But Neff found redemption in winning last year’s race and decided to run again this year -- both as defending champion and in honor of Geronimo, the dog he lost in 2011.

Whether or not Neff's speed en route to Dawson has financial motivations is unclear. The first musher to reach that checkpoint, the halfway point of the race, wins four ounces of placer gold -- this year estimated to be worth a hefty $6,400. The first racer is expected into Dawson early Tuesday morning.

There all mushers are required to take a 36-hour rest before continuing on to the Alaska half of the race.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com