FAIRBANKS — Champion mushers and rookies alike met in downtown Fairbanks Saturday during the first day of signups for the 2016 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.
By early afternoon, race officials said 21 mushers had signed up for the 1,000 mile race, reported the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. That number includes nine rookies.
"I've been waiting to do it for a long time, it's a thrill," said first-time 1,000-mile musher Andy Pace. His wife, Kristin Knight Pace, finished the Yukon Quest in 15th place as a rookie last year.
Kristin Pace will be on the trail as a handler for her husband, who ran Yukon Quest's 300-mile race in 2014 and served as Kristin's handler last year.
The couple runs Hey Moose! Kennel in Healy and said they will use the same core dog team as last year.
The Yukon Quest starts in Fairbanks on February 6, 2016, and ends in Whitehorse, Yukon.
The top three mushers from last year's race will be returning for 2016: Champion Brent Sass of Eureka, second-place finisher Allen Moore of Two Rivers and third-place finisher Ed Hopkins of 10 Mile, Yukon.
"I'm stoked, I want to defend," Sass told the News-Miner. "I think my dog team is more than capable. This is the 10th time I've ran this race. I've seen both directions and I'm confident with both directions."
He was swarmed by fans and fellow mushers as he became the fifth musher to sign up Saturday.
Sass said lead dogs Basin, Sound and Krypton will be returning with him. Basin and Sound were his "superstar" Gold Harness winners last year.
"It's pretty much the same team as last year, we have a couple new dogs mixed in, but all the dogs have finished a 1,000-mile race with the exception of one young one," Sass said. "They're all in the prime of their careers. . I have lots of confidence in them."
Rookie Meghan Luke will also run a puppy team from Sass' kennel, Wild and Free Mushing. She has worked as a handler in the past.
"For me, it's kind of like the Mount Everest of dog mushing," said Luke. "It will be a big deal for me."
"The dogs are dialed, their genetics are way more proven," said Sass, who will be running a puppy team for the fourth time. "They're all offspring of my main dog Silver and my new superstar Basin. They are an amazing group of dogs."
Race officials said Friday that this year's purse will be at least $115,000.
Mushers have until January 4 to sign up for either the Yukon Quest or the Yukon Quest 300.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing