RUBY - Defending champion Doug Swingley was first into this isolated village today as leaders in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race prepare for a 150-mile run down the frozen surface of the Yukon River.
Swingley, from Lincoln, Mont., arrived at 9:05 a.m. He passed three other veteran mushers on the 112-mile run from the Gold Rush ghost town of Cripple to Ruby. That trio included three-time champion Jeff King of Denali Park, Charlie Boulding of Manley and Ramy Brooks of Healy. All three left Cripple before Swingley completed his 24-hour layover.
Swingley also was first into Cripple on Wednesday, earning the halfway prize of $3,000 in gold nuggets and a trophy. Swingley also earned a gourmet dinner for being first to the Yukon River.
Ruby is 497 miles from the finish line at Nome.
Swingley said his race was going according to plan, and he actually arrived in Cripple an hour earlier than expected Wednesday night.
``My confidence keeps building every time I run them,'' Swingley said of his 12-dog team. ``They just keep getting better and better.''
Fellow front-runners Martin Buser and Rick Swenson, who have won the race eight times between them, echoed Swingley in praising their dogs.
Buser's team is coming together at this point in the race, said the Big Lake musher. He had one dog, Scorpio, who wasn't performing very well. But, Buser said, ``I think he concluded that he wants to be part of the team, and that's nice.''
Asked how a musher deals with a dog that's not performing, Buser said, ``You just give him quiet support, no pressure. . . . You just let him figure out if he's going to be part of the show.''
Swenson, from Two Rivers, said he was shaken and got slightly off his schedule when a dog on his team was hurt in a collision with a tree at the Rohn checkpoint.
The dog suffered a severe neck injury when the team was spooked by two people going down the trail near the checkpoint, vets there said. The team swerved, forcing the wheel dog into a tree. The dog, Toby, was treated at the checkpoint, then flown to Anchorage, where it was under veterinary care.
``It really hurt because he was a really good dog. He just loved being out on the Iditarod,'' Swenson said. ``Thank God those vets were there to save him.''
While the incident was upsetting, it did not shake his confidence in how he's running his race, Swenson said.
The Iditarod's only five-time champion said he had come up with several different strategies for running the Iditarod in his pre-race planning. Taking the 24-hour layover in Cripple was his favored option, he said.
Eighty-one mushers began the race, which had its ceremonial start at Anchorage on March 4. Two mushers have scratched, leaving 79 teams still on the trail.
Updates on the race are available through www.iditarod.com.