ANCHORAGE - Reigning champion Lance Mackey will sit out the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race this year in favor of a deal that will help his pocketbook.
Mackey has won the 1,000-mile race between Fairbanks and Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, for four straight years.
In the last two years, he has completed something that many predicted could not happen - a Quest victory and then a championship in the 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Mackey told the Anchorage Daily News he's dropping out of the Quest mostly to assist another Alaska musher trying to qualify for the Iditarod in March.
Mackey in October leased 24 dogs and offered daily expertise to Kwethluk musher Harry Alexie. In return, he will receive $50,000 in money and expenses from the Alaska Army National Guard, which Alexie has belonged to for 13 years.
The Army National Guard last year hired Iditarod veteran Al Hardman of Michigan to train Master Sgt. Rodney Whaley of Franklin, Tenn., for his rookie run. Whaley ended up scratching in Cripple.
This year, the National Guard picked Alexie, an Alaska Native who wanted Mackey as a mentor. Alexie is a personnel service noncommissioned officer for the 2nd Battalion 297th Infantry in Bethel. During the race, Alexie and his dogs will be on their own.
With Alexie training with a team made up mostly of Mackey's yearlings, all that would remain in Mackey's Comeback Kennel are enough veterans and youngsters to give him a chance at winning one of Alaska's two premier long-distance races.
Mackey is a member of the Yukon Quest board of directors but said he had to go with his gut feeling in choosing the Iditarod.
"I'm not going to run the Quest this year," he said. "I don't have any spares."
Mackey has not officially pulled out of the Yukon Quest, said director Tania Simpson. If he withdraws by Jan. 30, he will receive a $500 refund from his $1,000 entry fee.
His Yukon Quest victory last year made Mackey the race's only four-time champion.
The 2009 field was expected to be one of the strongest in the race's 26-year history, including three-time champ Hans Gatt, Quest rookie and four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser, 2008 Quest runner-up Ken Anderson and Top-10 Iditarod finisher Jon Little.
The Iditarod has a bigger purse. Mackey has collected $138,000 in prize money the last two years and two new Dodge trucks. He gave the first truck to his wife, Tonya, and traded the second for a sports car.
"I still need a new truck," he said. "That's my ultimate motivation. I'm fired up and determined to win."
His last two Quest wins have earned him $75,000.
"I'd hate to say it's about the money," Mackey said. "I'm making this decision to do what's best for my kennel."
The Yukon Quest starts Feb. 14 and the Iditarod begins March 7.
Mackey said he'll return to the Quest in the future.
"I don't have a thing to prove to anyone," he said. "I can't run 'em all - and I sure as hell can't win 'em all."
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