Defending Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champion Brent Sass pulled out of the 2023 race early Saturday morning due to health concerns.
Sass scratched at 7:42 a.m. at the Yukon River checkpoint of Eagle Island, about 400 miles from the finish line in Nome, “as he didn’t feel he could care for his team due to current concerns with his periodontal health,” the Iditarod Trail Committee said in a statement.
By midday Saturday, Sass was at the health clinic in Unalakleet receiving medical care, according to Iditarod spokeswoman Shannon Noonan. Several dogs from his team had also been moved to Unalakleet, and the rest will be brought there by Iditarod pilots, she said.
By Saturday afternoon, Iditarod Insider, the race’s media arm, had posted a video from Sass’ Friday night arrival at Eagle Island — several hours before he decided to scratch — in which he explained some of the problems he was having.
“I’ve been kinda sick on and off the whole race, but it kinda hit hard today earlier. And then also I have three cracked teeth that I haven’t dealt with,” Sass told Insider on Friday. “They’ve been on and off giving me a hard time, but this morning it’s just been a steady ache nonstop all day long.”
“That rest earlier today, I was just wasted and slept the whole time and didn’t do all the things I needed to do with the dogs, and they notice that,” Sass told the interviewer. “It all just kinda came to a head earlier today.”
The checkpoint at Eagle Island is the most bare-bones of the entire race, an old cabin on an otherwise sparse stretch of the Yukon River between the communities of Grayling and Kaltag. Large planes cannot land there. Weather and logistical issues have regularly impeded the delivery of supplies, or shut it down as a checkpoint almost entirely, in recent years.
Sass arrived at Eagle Island at 9:38 p.m. Friday in the lead, and the Eureka musher took his mandatory eight-hour Yukon River rest there before deciding to scratch Saturday morning.
“There’s no problem with the dogs,” said race commentator Bruce Lee, with Iditarod Insider. Sass had been running with 11 dogs for the last several hundred miles, all of them still “in good health,” according to Iditarod officials.
Sass’ father, Mark, said from Nome that he had no additional information to share about his son’s status.
Sass was the second competitor to scratch following Healy rookie Jennifer LaBar, who pulled out early in the race at the checkpoint of Rainy Pass due to a hand injury.
Later Saturday, New Hampshire rookie Gregg Vitello scratched at the checkpoint of Iditarod in the “best interest of his team,” according to race officials. Through a third party, he’d contacted the race marshal and asked for trail sweeps to escort him back to that checkpoint, the Iditarod Trail Committee said, adding that Vitello and his dogs were fine and would be taken off the trail by Iditarod pilots. Vitello’s son, Bailey Vitello — also an Iditarod rookie — was still in the race Saturday evening.
Sass’ departure makes the competition even fiercer this year, after he’d been running at the front of the pack for much of the race.
On Saturday, Ryan Redington of Knik was the first musher to reach Kaltag just before 1 p.m., with Aniak’s Richie Diehl and 2019 champion Pete Kaiser of Bethel arriving 16 minutes and 32 minutes later, respectively.
Not far behind was Brushkana musher Jessie Holmes, who has been running a slightly different run-rest schedule from the leading triad. He broke up his run from Eagle Island with a rest on the way to Kaltag. Rather than slingshotting past the others, Holmes paused in the checkpoint.
Even factoring in his break on the way up the Yukon earlier in the day, Holmes made the run considerably slower than the front-pack group. All four have already completed their eight-hour Yukon River rests.
Kelly Maixner of Big Lake, running within about a mile of Holmes, had yet to take his Yukon River rest. The same is true of Danish musher Mille Porsild, the next musher back. She’s down to nine dogs, the least of any musher running in the top 10 currently.