The mushers collect the prize money and make the headlines, but there can be no great sled dog teams without great lead dogs.
Here's our unofficial Howl of Fame -- a lineup, in no particular order, of some of the sport's most spectacular athletes.
BALTO AND TOGO
Balto and Togo are the most famous dogs of the 1925 diphtheria serum run to Nome. Togo was the real hero, the lead dog who traveled farther than any other in the 674-mile run from Nenana to Nome. But Balto got much of the glory because his team delivered the life-saving serum to Nome on Feb. 2.
Togo led Leonhard Seppala, whose team raced 261 miles to fetch and relay the serum. Seppala traveled four days and 170 miles from Nome before meeting musher Henry Ivanoff west of Shaktoolik. There he picked up the serum, turned around and raced 91 miles back to Golovin, where he handed the serum to musher Charlie Olson.
Togo's 91-mile run from Shaktoolik to Golovin covered the longest leg of the relay. Gunnar Kaasen's team, led by Balto, made the home-stretch run, carrying the serum the final 53 miles from Bluff to Nome.
A statue was erected in Balto's honor in New York's Central Park. Balto himself wound up in Cleveland, where he lived at the city's zoological gardens until he died in 1933. His remains are on display in Cleveland.
Togo was 12 years old the year of the serum run, and he developed arthritis not long afterward. He lived as a stud in Maine and was put to sleep in 1929. His body is on display at the Iditarod museum in Wasilla.
His career spanned a decade, from 1976 to 1986, and he is the only sled dog to lead a team to four Iditarod championships. But Andy, Rick Swenson's beloved leader, had more going for him than endurance and longevity.
"He's probably the most personable dog I've ever had," said Swenson, who has a son named after the dog.
Besides helping Swenson to Iditarod victories in 1977, 1979, 1981 and 1982, Andy led Sonny Lindner to victory in the inaugural Yukon Quest in 1984 and was a member of Swenson's 1983 All-Alaska Sweepstakes championship team.
Andy died in 1993, three days short of his 20th birthday, Swenson had him custom-mounted. Today Andy is on display alongside Togo at the Iditarod museum in Wasilla.
Lance Mackey called him Old Faithful. Wonder Dog works too.
A big, gray bombproof husky, Larry raced in 10 Iditarods and Yukon Quests and won seven of them. In 2007, Larry pulled off a mushing first -- he won the Golden Harness awards in both the Iditarod and Quest, powering Mackey to an unprecedented doubleheader sweep of the 1,000-mile marathons in a span of just six weeks.
Paul Gebhardt first recognized Larry's potential in the 2003 Iditarod, when he used Larry as a swing dog while Mackey sat out to recover from cancer. "That dog might turn into a good leader some day," he told Mackey after the race.
By the end of his career, Larry was an Iditarod celebrity, known by name, reputation and sight in villages along the trail. "He needs no introduction, " Mackey said. "Everyone knows Larry."
Kolyma was the lead dog when Iron Man Johnson smashed the All-Alaska Sweepstakes record in 1910 by covering the 408-mile course in 74 hours, 14 minutes, 22 seconds.
And if the story told in the Bill Vaudrin book "Racing Alaska Sled Dogs" is true, Kolyma was as much an iron dog as Johnson was an iron man. When Johnson's exhausted team crossed the finish line after its epic record run, the dogs collapsed to the ground. Except for Kolyma. He stayed on his feet and posed for pictures.
Granite was the dog Susan Butcher didn't want at first, the dog that didn't impress right away. The dog was part of a litter shared by Butcher and Joe Redington Sr., and Butcher initially gave him to Redington.
"Later that year when Joe owed me $600, I said to Joe, 'Well, instead of you paying me that $600 why don't I take a dog?' So we walked around the dog lot and there was this dog, his hair had all fallen out, he had some skin disease. He was hairless, he was skinny, he was terrible. Joe said, 'Why don't you take that Granite dog back?' ''
Not much of a team dog, Granite blossomed once Butcher tried him in lead. The rest is history. With Granite powering her team, Butcher became the first musher to win three straight Iditarods. He maintained an incredible pace even in the most grueling stretches of trail, prompting Butcher rival Rick Swenson to call Granite a "Rambo-type dog."
Granite joined Butcher on a visit the White House and served as a ring bearer at her wedding.
"He'd do anything for me," Butcher said, "because he knows that I'm never going to ask him to do something that he's incapable of."
Nugget won fame by winning two consecutive Iditarods with two separate drivers.
Carl Huntington won the 1974 race with Nugget in the lead, even though Nugget took the team on a 10-mile detour to chase a moose. In 1975, Nugget was the lead dog on Emmitt Peters' winning team.
Nugget belonged to Peters, who said the husky's back-to-back wins made his life easier.
"Before the Iditarod I couldn't get anybody to help me take care of the dogs. Had to do it all myself," Peters said in the 1976 Iditarod Trail Annual. "But after Nugget won the Iditarod twice, everybody in the family was proud to be related to Nugget. They all helped me then."
A year after Nugget's second win, Peters was in Eagle River training a team for the Fur Rendezvous world championship race. His team got tangled and Nugget slipped out of her harness and dashed off. Anchorage radio stations broadcast a description of Nugget to help searchers, but when Nugget was found, she was dead in a ditch, the victim of a hit-and-run car accident.
Elmer, who won the 1999 Golden Harness Award after leading Doug Swingley to his second of four Iditarod championships, had "a tremendous personal desire to achieve," Swingley said. "No matter how tired out he was, he was eager to drive the team."
He had tremendous DNA too, siring Peppy and Stormy. Stormy was a leader on Swingley's string of three straight championships in 1999, 2000 and 2001 and Peppy won the 2001 Golden Harness Award.
After Elmer helped him set a race record in 1995, Swingley said the leader was capable of maintaining a speed of 15 mph for the entire 1,000 miles of the Iditarod. "If I had 15 more dogs like Elmer, this race would have been over in seven days," he said.
Gareth Wright has been blessed with several exceptional lead dogs, Flash and Venus among them, but none can match the immortalizing final effort made by Jenny, a half-Irish setter who led Wright's teams for five years.
Jenny's effort in leading Wright to second place in the 1961 Fur Rendezvous World Championship Sled Dog Race cost her her life.
Wright was in sixth place going into the third and final day of the race. With Jenny leading the way, Wright passed all five teams ahead of him.
Then Jenny lost her gait. Wright stopped to take her out of the lead, but still the dog struggled. Wright stopped again, this time to put Jenny in the sled. Jenny died later that night in Anchorage, but she left quite the legacy.
"That's where all our husky bloodline comes from now, from Jenny and her sister Nellie, " said Wright.
Although four-time champion Martin Buser won the Iditarod with more than one star leader, D2 was special. He powered Buser to a second-place showing in 1991 and then led Buser to victory in 1992 and 1994.
Named Dagger II, after his sire, D2 was an off-season star too. When Buser made promotional trips after his victories, D2 often accompanied him -- and often stole the show. "D2 just takes me along to sign him in and out of hotels," Buser said.
People probably thought Dr. Roland Lombard was crazy when he paid $1,000 for one of George Attla's lead dogs back in 1962. But that thinking didn't last long.
Nellie had already led Attla to the 1962 Fur Rondy championship and, one week later, took him to second place in the Alaska State Championship. That's when Lombard made Attla an offer he couldn't refuse.
The deal paid off handsomely for Lombard, who drove Nellie to five Fur Rondy championships, including three straight in 1963-65 and two more before the decade was over. Nellie won every major sprint race in Alaska at least once before retiring in 1970.
Reach Beth Bragg at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4335.
By BETH BRAGG
Anchorage Daily News
Alaska Dispatch Publishing