WHITEHORSE, Yukon -- In each of the past two years, Allen Moore has figured out how to finish first in the Yukon Quest. This year he'll find himself starting first. The Two Rivers musher drew the No. 1 bib for the 1,000-mile sled dog race, which gives him the privilege of leading the 26-team field out of the chute here Saturday morning.
The back-to-back defending champ chuckled after drawing the number at Thursday night's prerace banquet, then stepped to the podium to announce his position.
"My eyesight isn't that good, but I think this says No. 1," Moore said, drawing cheers from the crowd of more than 400 people at the Yukon Convention Centre.
A familiar face will be chasing him just a few minutes later. Brent Sass, who traded the lead with Moore for most of the 2014 race, drew the No. 2 bib.
Sass was just minutes behind Moore last year as he approached the final checkpoint. But he dozed off outside Braeburn, tumbling from his sled as it crossed a frozen lake. The resulting concussion forced Sass to scratch.
The Eureka musher became emotional while speaking at the banquet, saying he'd been waiting for the Quest since his last run ended. He thanked his dogs for their perseverance.
"I kind of let them down last year," he said with a wavering voice. "They're super, super strong dogs."
An early start position doesn't give teams an advantage, since the three-minute increments between departures are adjusted during rest stops early in the race. But it does provide a high-profile spot as their dog teams navigate thousands of spectators who gather to watch Saturday's start.
Four-time champion Lance Mackey declared his No. 8 bib a good omen, since this will be his eighth Quest. Hugh Neff, who won the race in 2012, seemed equally thrilled at his No. 26 bib — he'll be in the back of the pack at the start of his 25th 1,000-mile race.
Neff credited Jeff King, who is returning to the Quest after a 25-year absence, and Iditarod veteran Ray Redington Jr., for making this year's race interesting.
"I'm trying to rekindle the passion," he said. "I have two guys who have rekindled it for me, and those guys are my competition."
Along with the bib draw, the prerace banquet offers a chance for mushers to thank supporters and sponsors, tell a few jokes and take friendly jabs at rivals. Ester's Cody Strathe even used the opportunity to get the packed crowd to sing "Happy Birthday" to his wife, fellow musher Paige Drobny.
Dawson City musher Brian Wilmshurst, who showed up wearing red shorts, a white shirt decorated with a feather pattern and knee-high athletic socks, invited spectators to check out his sponsor, Skookum Brand Parka, as he modeled their coats on the trail.
"I'll look even better than I do tonight," he said.
Ryne Olson, a rookie from Two Rivers, thanked her boyfriend Derek as she prepared for her first long-distance race.
"I don't think he knew what he was getting into when I decided to put a bunch of dogs in the backyard," she said.
Follow Fairbanks Daily News-Miner writer Jeff Richardson on Twitter: @FDNMquest.