UNALAKLEET - Defending champion Lance Mackey beat four-time champion Jeff King out of this checkpoint Sunday evening, launching the last leg of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Mackey said he was striving for a repeat of last year's race, when he trailed King into the Inupiat village of Unalakleet on the coast and went on to win the 1,100-mile race.
"We all know how that story ends," Mackey said as he changed sleds for the trek across the icy, often windy coast. "If history repeats itself, things are looking good."
Auke Bay musher Deborah Bicknell sits in 84th place after leaving Cripple at 3:07 p.m. Sunday.
King, of Denali Park, said different factors this year - including a much stronger team - will prevail in his favor. He expects to gain quickly on Mackey somewhere up the trail.
"I think I have more speed than he does," the 51-year-old musher said. "But clearly, this could be a race. I thought his team looked pretty good coming here."
King was first to reach Unalakleet, arriving with all 16 dogs at about 2 p.m., an hour-and-a-half ahead of Mackey, 37, of Fairbanks. But Mackey was first out of the community of 750, leaving at 6:17 p.m., followed 44 minutes later by King.
Before taking off, King asked checkpoint volunteers for Mackey's departure time. But asked if that affected his own departure, he said, "No, it's about the time I was going to go."
Mackey was the front-runner until King shot past him early Sunday after leaving the Kaltag checkpoint for Unalakleet, 261 miles from the finish line in Nome.
In Unalakleet, while King took a nap, Mackey fed his dogs and joked with locals, stopping to sign autographs on several parkas. He told checkpoint veterinarians that he would drop two dogs that weren't performing as well, leaving him with 12 dogs.
Many of these dogs were with Mackey last year when he became the first musher to record back-to-back wins in the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race and the Iditarod.