A seven-time champion finished at the front of the pack and a pair of four-time champions finished near the back of the pack Friday on the first day of the Fur Rendezvous Open World Championship sled dog race.
Buddy Streeper, who is chasing his eighth victory in the historic sprint race, forged a lead of more than two minutes on the 25-mile dash across Anchorage.
Driving a team of 18 huskies, Streeper made the trip from 4th Avenue to Bicentennial Park and back again in 1 hour, 26 minutes, 18 seconds.
Amy Dunlap of Salcha had the second fastest time (1:28:27) and Kourosh Partow of Chugiak was the third fastest (1:29:22).
Finishing near the back of the field of 26 teams were Hans Gatt and Lance Mackey, who made their names in much longer races. Gatt, who finished 21st Friday, and Mackey, who was 24th, are the only four-time winners in the history of the Yukon Quest, and Mackey is a four-time Iditarod champ.
Mackey, who made his rookie run in 2014, when he placed 14th in a 15-team field, is back for his second Rondy. He’s running a team of 14 hounds he adopted as puppies about 18 months ago with the idea of using them as sprint dogs.
“It was something that I’d always somewhat thought about doing — to have an Iditarod kennel and then to have a Rondy kennel, if you will,” Mackey said. “It didn’t even seem feasible, or it was just an idea.”
Now it's reality. Mackey said he trains his hounds in the morning at his Fairbanks kennel, takes a lunch break and then harnesses his huskies for an afternoon run.
He said he’s had to learn the personalities and quirks of a different breed, and the hounds have had to adjust to his style.
“I got this weird feeling in my stomach today, but it’s not because I’m nervous — I’m excited,” he said. “Well, I’m not going to lie, I’m a little nervous because these dogs have never been down this avenue.”
Fur Rondy challenges mushers and dogs alike with a course that features a mix of city streets, ski trails and mushing trails. Spectators are a presence much of the way, and dogs can get spooked by people close to the trail or unfamiliar trail features like tunnels and bridges.
“It’s just a lot of twisty turns, and tunnels and bridges and underpasses — things that we haven’t really seen before," said Alix Crittenden, a rookie from Bondurant, Wyoming, who was Friday’s 12th-place finisher.
Crittenden is one of 10 rookies in the three-day race, a group that includes Gatt — a rookie when it comes to Rondy, but not to sled dog racing. Besides his four Quest championships, the Whitehorse musher is a 14-time Iditarod finisher who finished second in 2010 and third in 2011. He’s also a respected sled maker.
Gatt semi-retired from distance mushing a few years ago, although he returned to the Quest in 2019 and grabbed second place.
“We have no long-term goals anymore in racing," he said. "I’m kind of trying to get out of it.”
Sprinting is a way to stay in the game, he said, but it's also a business opportunity. About 10 years ago, Gatt stopped making sprint sleds, but this year he is testing out two new prototypes.
“That’s one of the reasons I am here," he said. "Just to let everyone know there’s going to be a new sled coming out.”
Racing continues Saturday and Sunday at noon each day. Mushers will leave 4th Avenue in two-minute increments, with teams started in reverse order of the standings.
For Saturday, that means rookie Tony Blanford of Anchorage, who had Friday’s slowest run, will be the first to leave downtown. Streeper will be the last to leave. Mackey and his hounds will be the third team on the trail.
Though Rondy dogs run at speeds two or three times faster than Iditarod dogs, Mackey said a sprint race feels like a vacation compared to the challenges of a thousand-mile race: It’s still daylight when he finishes, he has a nice hotel to sleep in and a variety of restaurants to dine in.
He doesn't have to worry about howling winds on the Bering Sea coast, a roller-coaster ride down the Dalzell Gorge, minimal sleep or potentially brutal cold with nowhere to escape it.
"I’m going next weekend to put myself through those elements," he said.
Not that Fur Rendezvous is a stroll through the park. Blanford needed more than two hours to complete his first Rondy run, part of which he did without the benefit of his dogs, which got away from him on the outbound trail near the Alaska Native Medical Center.
“Tony Blanford had the kind of excitement that no one wants — starting with a broken quick release that meant his team nearly left the staging area without him to actually losing the team at Ambassador corner,” race marshal Janet Clarke said by text. “Thanks to amazing work by trail guards further down the trail, his team was stopped and secured safely until he caught up with them over the Tudor Overpass.
“Naturally that also happened to be the area of several head-on passes which occurred despite an entire team noisily waiting for their driver.”
Day 1 results
1) Blayne “Buddy” Streeper 1:26:18; 2) Amy Dunlap 1:28:27; 3) Kourosh Partow 1:29:22; 4) Greg Taylor 1:29:27; 5) Guy Girard 1:29:51; 6) Marvin Kokrine 1:29:54; 7) Mya Hartum (R) 1:30:59; 8) Don Cousins 1:31:42; 9) Michael Tetzner 1:31:45; 10) Gary Markley 1:31:58; 11) Jeffrey Conn 1:32:39; 12) Alix Crittenden (R) 1:33:12; 13) Brent Beck 1:34:22; 14) Armin Johnson 1:34:40; 15) Erick LaForce (R) 1:35:07; 16) Bruce Magnusson (R) 1:35:23; 17) Frank Habermann (R) 1:36:38; 18) Rejean Therrien (R) 1:37:01; 19) Danny Beck 1:37:37; 20) Wendy Callis 1:38:42; 21) Hans Gatt (R) 1:38:50; 22) Thad McCracken (R) 1:42:34; 23) Eli Campbell (R) 1:45:04; 24) Lance Mackey 1:45:47; 25) Todd Whitcomb 1:47:24; 26) Tony Blanford (R) 2:03:22.