Jeff King’s Iditarod understudy is nervous but confident heading into his rookie run

Sean Underwood is like the perfectly prepared understudy who is more than ready to take center stage in place of the star who falls sick just before the curtain rises.

He knows Jeff King’s sled dogs. He has known some of them since the day they were born, and he has spent miles and miles training them and racing with them. In that respect, he is ready for his closeup.

Then again, Underwood — a 28-year-old from Atlanta who has worked as a handler for King since 2016 — wasn’t expecting to make his rookie run in the Iditarod until next year.

Iditarod officials Tuesday night gave unanimous consent to Underwood’s last-minute entry in the Iditarod, which begins Saturday with the ceremonial start in Anchorage.

He’ll be driving a team of dogs from King’s Husky Homestead kennel in Denali Park in place of the four-time champion, who had emergency surgery for a perforated intestine Monday night.

“Imagine that phone call with my mom — hey, by the way, I’m running the Iditarod in three days,” Underwood said Wednesday during a break while driving to Anchorage so he can attend Thursday morning’s mandatory musher meeting.

Underwood completed his final Iditarod qualifying race in February by finishing seventh in the Yukon Quest 300. In his other qualifying races, he placed 14th in the 2017 Tustumena 200 and 24th in the 2018 Copper Basin 300. King called Underwood “highly qualified.”

“I definitely know that people with less experience have done the Iditarod,” Underwood said. “So I definitely feel confident — I know how to take care of the dogs, I know how to feed the dogs and I’m running Jeff King’s team.

“That doesn’t mean I’m not stressed, anxious, overwhelmed and nervous.”

Underwood, a graduate of Georgia Southern, came to Alaska in 2016 and spent the summer working as a fisherman on Kodiak Island. He has an aunt and uncle in Anchorage who know King, and that winter Underwood worked for King as a handler.

“I got a job scooping poop for him, and I slowly got to working with the dogs and gained more and more responsibility every year,” he said.

It didn’t take long before he was racing dogs from King’s kennel, with the goal of racing in the 2021 Iditarod.

“I was hoping to spend a whole year prepping for the Iditarod instead of four days,” Underwood said. “But everything is set up and we’re ready to rock.”

Each checkpoint will be an adventure, he said. He knows what kind of dog food King put in each of the drop bags that will be delivered to various checkpoints in the race, but he has no idea what kind of human food King packed.

He thinks there may be some burritos and Reuben sandwiches, but he really doesn’t know what he’ll find in each bag.

“It’ll be like Christmas morning,” Underwood said.

The biggest gift, of course, is getting the chance to drive King’s A team in the 1,000-mile Iditarod.

Underwood said if Iditarod officials hadn’t allowed him to pinch-hit for King, he would’ve taken the dogs on a multi-day trip somewhere, because they are primed to do some long-distance traveling. He’s thrilled — and stressed, anxious, overwhelmed and nervous — that instead their destination will be Nome.

He’ll be driving a top-10 team, Underwood said, but he isn’t thinking about finishing in the top 10, the top 20 or even the top 30.

“This will be a nice, long camping trip,” he said. “I’m not going to be in a rush to go anywhere.”

Beth Bragg

Beth Bragg wrote about sports and other topics for the ADN for more than 35 years, much of it as sports editor. She retired in October 2021. She's contributing coverage of Alaskans involved in the 2022 Winter Olympics.