Four racers with a total of 14 Iditarod championships were among the 54 mushers who signed up for the 2013 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Saturday.
Defending champion Dallas Seavey will be back, as will his father, Mitch, the 2004 victor of the Iditarod. They'll be joined by a trio of four-time champions and the fastest racer to make the 1,000-mile journey from Willow to Nome across Alaska's hinterland:
• Lance Mackey, the only musher to win the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race and the Iditarod back to back, returns for what amounts to a comeback effort. After winning four straight Iditarods ending in 2010, Mackey finished a disappointing 22nd in March.
• John Baker of Kotzebue, -- the 2011 champion and the race record-holder with his blistering finish of eight days, 18 hours, 46 minutes -- will try to improve on his ninth-place finish in March 2013.
• Jeff King, the 55–year-old, four-time champion, came out of retirement this year only to see some of his dogs develop a serious stomach problem 12 miles outside of Unalakleet, lay down, and refuse to budge. It was the first scratch of King's long and storied career. "They really hit a wall," King said at the time. "And there's no place to fix it out here."
• Martin Buser of Big Lake, the final four-time champion in the 2013 field, last won in 2002 and may have trouble staying ahead of his son, Rohn, come March. Martin has completed 26 consecutive races, the longest current streak. He's also won the Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian Award for superior dog care four times.
The winningest musher in Iditarod history, Rick Swenson, did not sign up Saturday, but mushers still have months to do so. Swenson is coming off one of his most disappointing races, a 30th-place finish.
In addition to the returning champions, several prominent runners-up put down a $3,000 entry fee to try and climb that final step.
Aliy Zirkle of Two Rivers, who fought a pitched battle with Dallas Seavey in the home stretch of this year's race, is back. (Husband Allen Moore, another Iditarod entrant, suffered an even tougher defeat this year, finishing second to Hugh Neff by 26 seconds in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest.)
2011 runner-up Ramey Smyth of Big Lake -- who was just 64 minutes behind Baker's record time in 2011 -- is back, too. Other former second-place finishers in the field include Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof as well as DeeDee Jonrowe and Linwood Fiedler of Willow.
Besides offering racers their first chance the sign up for the 2013 race, Saturday was a picnic to thank volunteers in this year's race. Both King and Cim Smyth won a drawing to win back their $3,000 entry fees.
Contact Mike Campbell at mcampbell(at)alaskadispatch.com