BETHEL — Aiming to turn tragedy to triumph, Brent Sass of Eureka pulled out of the Aniak halfway point at 11:19 a.m. Saturday with a commanding two-hour lead in the Kuskokwim 300 sled dog race.
By 2:03 p.m., nine mushers had given chase, but Sass held a one hour, 57 minute lead over defending champion Pete Kaiser of Bethel.
Martin Buser, a two-time K300 champion, was third, 18 minutes behind Kaiser, with Joar Ulsom of Norway, Rohn Buser of Big Lake, Jeff King of Denali Park, Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof, Joshua Cadzow of Fort Yukon and Hugh Neff of Tok following.
The K300 is the world's richest middle-distance sled dog race, boasting a $130,000 purse. The winner pockets $25,000.
Sass won the 2015 Yukon Quest. But the lead dog who led Sass to his Quest win — 5-year-old Basin — died earlier this week on a training run, according to Alaska Public Media. "I left the dogs camping like I always do and when we came back down to the dogs, something had definitely happened," Sass told APRN. "He'd gotten sick and was not in a good way. It went downhill fast." But because Sass and his team were in a remote area, the musher couldn't summon a veterinarian. "We did as much as we could. We gave him fluids and warmed him up and put him in a cabin. But we couldn't (save him)."
Next up is the checkpoint of Kalskag, about 35 miles from Aniak. Typically, the winner hits the Bethel finish line early Sunday morning.
Kuskokwim 300 Race Committee head Myron Angstman of Bethel called this year's lineup of past winners and Iditarod champs "an immense field of stars."
In addition to the early race leaders, the field includes young Mike Williams Jr. of Akiak, the 2011 runner-up; Hugh Neff of Tok, another former Yukon Quest champion; and John Baker of Kotzebue, the 2011 Iditarod winner.
The out-and-back trail was reportedly icy but solid where it ran atop the mighty Kuskokwim River. During last year's K300, stretches of jumble ice posed a major problem for race officials, who spent days blasting through ice or rerouting the course.
This year, the shorter Akiak Dash, a companion race, was rerouted due to icy conditions and its usual mass start was abandoned.
"Conditions may be tough but the regulars keep coming back (to the K300) because they've learned they can do it, they can get around our trail with tough conditions," Angstman said. "And they can do it without any harm to their teams."
Alaska Dispatch News reporter Lisa Demer in Bethel contributed to this report.
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