FAIRBANKS -- "You're 16, you're beautiful, and you're mine" I heard most of the Iditaroders singing that old Johnny Burnett song as they headed down the street leaving the start chute. By the time they reach the coast, many will have switched over to John Denver; "I'm tired…. of castles in the air." I've built a few of those castles myself.
At the Iditarod start banquet, there seemed to be at least a half-dozen teams that sounded pretty confident they could win. Most of them will be wrong. Only one team can fit across the finish line first. Whether the goal is to be first or last, what struck me was the changing face of sled-dog racing.
The Iditarod is evolving much the same way as horse racing did many years ago. Cowboys had horses they worked with. Some were fast. They raced the speediest against other working horses. Soon enough, horses designed only for the racecourse became the speed standard that all horses were measured against. Folks bought and trained horses just to race.
Dog racing is evolving similarly. The recurring theme at last week's Iditarod banquet was that of mushers who had read about or watched the Iditarod from afar, then came to Alaska and put together a dog team so they could run the big race.
Back in the day, everyone who ran the Iditarod, with few exceptions, already had a working dog team. As with the cowboys and their fast ponies, mushers raced dogs that hauled wood and traveled the trap line. There may not be any working teams in the Iditarod these days. Some may lament the loss, but it is the natural progression of the sport. There is no going back.
In today's world, it takes money to race competitively in the sport of dog racing. Fifteen grand will get your team on the Iditarod trail if you don't count any of the prep dollars during the previous 11 months.
So, that begs the question, who is going to get their money back? It is tough to pick the top five teams out of 78. And choosing a top 10 really isn't a true test of one's knowledge. Still, I am going out on the cornice. Here's the top five in my fantasy Iditarod:
1. Martin Buser. Martin has tried some innovative strategy the past couple of Iditarods. He has it dialed in this year.
2. Ken Anderson. He has methodically put together a solid Iditarod and Quest career. He gets a little better with every run.
3. Joar Ulsom. He is a quiet guy. (Maybe because his English isn't real good?). I like the way he handles his dogs.
4. Lance Mackey. Lance is my sentimental favorite. He truly is involved with his dogs. He showed great perseverance on his Quest run this year and deserves a spot on my fantasy five.
5. Paul Gebhardt. Paul has paid his dues. His training was challenging this season with no snow on his home trails on the Kenai Peninsula. I'd pick him to win, but the training challenges he faced won't allow it.
That is the fantasy. Now follows a reality check. I watched most of the teams go by at the ceremonial start in Anchorage. My choice for the real top five is based only on what I saw of the dogs at the start and my limited knowledge of the ability of the musher who is driving them.
1. Martin Buser. This is the fastest team on the trail. The dogs are in excellent physical condition and are driven by an extremely competent driver who isn't afraid to take a chance. The potential downside for Martin is a soft, slow trail.
2. Pete Kaiser. It is a stretch to pick Pete second, but he's coming off a Kuskokwim 300 victory, so I will. This is a real nice dog team that has obviously trained well. They move together like a machine that speaks of mileage in harness. Pete knows how to drive them at the end -- if he can show patience early.
3. Dallas Seavey. He has the dogs, he has the funding, and he has the knowledge of how to get to the front of the pack.
4. Aaron Burmeister. Aaron may have the best-bred team in the Iditarod. He pays attention to detail in his preparations, which will get him in the top five. To do better than fourth, Aaron will have to take a chance and do something unorthodox (for him) near the end, such as skipping a rest. He may push Martin.
5. Ken Anderson. His devil is in the details. There may be no one better at race detail than Ken. He will need to break from form somewhere along the trail and not be quite as predictable.
My top five, (in reality), may seem quite different than the usual leaderboard. I am going to go with it. It is better to have an opinion and be wrong than go with status quo and be quiet.
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. His wife, Zoya DeNure, is in this year's Iditarod.