Two Rivers musher Allen Moore gained sweet revenge Monday well before dawn, winning the 30th Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race over rival Hugh Neff of Tok.
Victory came a year after Moore was passed by Neff in the homestretch and lost the closest race in Quest history to Neff by a mere 26 seconds. This time, Moore steadily pulled away and won by a comfortable hour and 16 minutes. Led by his trusty lead dogs Scout and Quinto, Moore was cheered to the finish line on the Chena River in Fairbanks, Alaska's second largest city, arriving about 6:54 a.m. behind a team of 11 smartly trotting animals.
The victory continues a run of long-distance mushing mastery by the kennel run by Moore and his partner Aliy Zirkle, who is the first woman to prevail in the 1,000-mile race between the Canadian town of Whitehorse and Fairbanks. In addition to Moore's runner-up Quest finish last year, Zirkle was second in last year's Iditarod race beween Anchorage and Nome.
Moore grabbed the lead on Sunday when he bolted through the checkpoint at Mile 101, some 113 miles from Fairbanks, and this year he refused to relinquish it.
Because Two Rivers is home for Moore and Zirkle, the new champion is intimately familiar with the 72-mile trail from there to Fairbanks. "I know every inch of this trail really well," Moore told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner on Sunday. "I know every turn."
Moore left the final checkpoint of Two Rivers at 10:31 p.m. Sunday following a mandatory eight-hour rest. Neff gave chase 16 minutes later. A year ago, Moore had a 42-minute margin out of the final checkpoint that was 100 miles from the finish line. The Yukon Quest reverses direction annually and last year finished in Whitehorse.
For a second consecutive year, the weather on the trail was warm by Yukon Quest standards. During most Quests, racers face temperatures of minus-30, minus-40 or colder. But this Quest has seen daytime temperatures routinely in the mid-20s. Early Monday morning, the National Weather Service said it was 17 degrees in Fairbanks and snowing lightly.
Moore has long been one of Alaska's top middle-distance mushers. He is the winningest racer in the history of the Copper Basin 300 race, a 300-mile event. And as far as back as the Eagle checkpoint, 378 miles from the finish line, Neff, the defending champion, worried. "He's still got the team to beat," Neff told KUAC reporter Emily Schwing in Eagle, 378 miles from the finish line. "He kicked it in coming into town here. I'm sure they (Moore and Zirkle) have a better team than they had last year and I've got a better team than I had last year. He's making up a half hour to an hour on each run. That's because I've had to break trail and breaking trail takes a little bit out of your overall time."
As both men waited in Two Rivers to resume racing late Sunday night Neff, Moore and the other top mushers were relieved to have the grueling climb up 3,685-foot Eagle Summit behind them. Two years ago, Neff was leading by almost half a day when his team stalled on the summit. Unable to make it up the notoriously steep pitch, Neff withdrew from the race after his dog, Geronimo, died in the attempt. This year, however, Eagle Summit was relatively mild.
"It was nice to be the first one to do it," Neff told Schwing in the Mile 101 checkpoint, 113 miles from the finish line after descending Eagle Summit. "I'm a little sick of doing all the trail breaking for all these guys. Let them earn a little bit of their prize money."
This year, Moore earned the most prize money -- even if he didn't lead most of the way.