Rookie will be first to start at Yukon Quest

Posted: Friday, February 05, 2010

FAIRBANKS - Abbie West looked a little bit embarrassed when she saw the number in her hand.

Sam Harrel / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
Sam Harrel / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

"OK, well, you're all following me out," she said to her Yukon Quest competitors.

The Two Rivers musher and bartender will be the first one out the starting chute when the 1,000-mile international sled dog race begins at 11 a.m. Saturday in downtown Fairbanks.

At Wednesday night's start banquet, mushers drew numbers from a hat to determine their bib numbers, and West pulled out No. 1.

The 36-year-old isn't one for the limelight even being on stage at the banquet was a little much for her. But starting first, when she will have the full attention of spectators and camera crews, has its bright side.

"I'll just get it over with," she said.

That's some comfort, but West still has a few jitters.

"I really hope I'm not dragging off on my face at the start," she said.

West is technically a rookie because she's never finished the race, but she made it to Dawson City in 2000.

The final musher to leave the gates might be the closest thing to a rookie the race has ever seen.

Peter Fleck, a 19-year-old from Salisbury, England, will be the 24th musher out of the chute at 12:09 p.m. He has one year of mushing experience. "There's lots of people to follow, and I won't get frustrated because there will be no one to pass me," he said.

Brent Sass, of Fairbanks, was the first to draw a number, which he has done four of his five Quests. On the first day of sign-ups, Sass typically arrives at the Quest office in the early morning to be the first to enter the race.

"It's just something I do to show my excitement for the race," he said. "I wait for this all year."

After Sass pulled No. 12, he used the early face-time to throw out a playful taunt.

"Let's have a good race, guys. I'm out to get ya," he said on stage.

Four-time champion Lance Mackey the most likely "ya" other racers are looking to beat repeated those words after his No. 11 draw.

A runner-up in 2008, Ken Anderson chimed in: "It seems like Brent and Lance have their thing going on, but I want to get you guys, too."

The mushers could be doing plenty of back-and-forth on their way to the finish line, too, as this year's Quest features a field stacked with nine mushers who have previous top-five finishes.

Sonny Lindner, who won the original Yukon Quest in 1984, and Hans Gatt, a three-time champion, will start at 20th and 13th, respectively.

"This race is special because of one musher, and that's Sonny Lindner," 10-year Quest veteran Hugh Neff said on stage.

Lindner, 60, has signed up for several races recently, but this will be the first time he has started a Quest since 1992.

"Well, it took awhile," Lindner said to a chuckling crowd. "I'd like to thank my family and friends. They told me if I didn't go soon, I'd be a rookie again."

Before the draw, Iditarod legend Emmitt Peters got some laughs and some wows as he told old stories from the 1970s, including one about passing two other mushers in his sleep.

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