CIRCLE CITY -- Defending Yukon Quest champion Brent Sass of Eureka blew through this checkpoint about a quarter of the way through the race early Monday, retaking the lead in a game of leapfrog so far for the frontrunners of the 1,000-mile race to Whitehorse.
From here, Quest mushers head onto the Yukon River, where pre-race reports indicated jumble ice will be their biggest obstacle.
Sass had rested his full, 14-dog team for five hours and took a nap between Central and here as Tok musher Hugh Neff and Two Rivers' Allen Moore passed him and arrived late Sunday in the checkpoint only eight minutes apart, at 11:29 p.m. and 11:37 p.m., respectively. Neff and Moore, both behind 14 dogs, opted to feed and rest their teams.
But Sass did not linger in Circle. His team arrived at 12:30 a.m. Monday and stayed nine minutes, just long enough for Sass to tear through his drop bags and pack food, straw and other supplies in his sled bag. He sprinted to fill up his fuel bottle from a barrel next to the firehouse, its interior decorated with colorful posters for each team, and ran back to his sled.
Some 20 race fans, officials and volunteers watched Sass, a blur of activity, hurrying to return to the trail.
"Going down the river to go check it out, see what's happening," Sass said. "Dogs are looking good."
His checkpoint speed gave him a bit of a gap on other top racers out of this checkpoint. Moore left next at 3:51 a.m., followed by Neff at 3:56 a.m., a surging Matt Hall at 4:58 a.m., Ed Hopkins at 7:59 a.m., and Torsten Kohnert at 10:53 a.m. Depending on how long Sass stops to rest during the long run to Eagle, that margin may evaporate.
Sass said he wasn't concerned about that nor the jumble ice he expects to find on the Yukon River.
"It is what it is. You can't change it," he said.
Sass checked his team one more time and pulled his snow hook right after Matt Hall, another top contender from Two Rivers, arrived and parked his 12 dogs.
"Hike! Hike!" Sass called to his team as they pulled hard, heading into the darkness. "Good dogs!"
Neff, upbeat after coming off the trail, said he expected Sass to mush from here to Slavin's Cabin, some 60 miles down the trail.
"We all know each other's game plans and what we're doing," Neff said. "We've all been racing against each other for years, and we all know we all have great teams. I mean, I thought I had a great run, and all of a sudden Allen's right behind me."
Asked if he had seen Moore's headlamp approaching, Neff shared some wisdom he had heard given from legendary Huslia sprint musher George Attla, who died in 2015, to Iditarod champion Martin Buser: "Never look back."
"And I never look back," Neff said. "Well, sometimes."
Both Neff and Moore said the leg from Central to Circle had been smooth.
Moore described the trail as "picture perfect."
He said he had run into some trouble earlier, heading to the Mile 101 checkpoint: His sled tipped on its side in some overflow. The mishap had gotten one of his legs wet, but not too badly, he said.
"It wasn't that much," Moore said.