EAGLE ISLAND -- Doug Swingley built a substantial lead as mushers headed up the Yukon River Saturday in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. But former champion Jeff King appeared to be gaining on him.
Two dogs from Iditarod teams died Friday, one of them from a bacterial infection three days after it had been dropped by a musher.
Swingley left Eagle Island Saturday afternoon after spending nearly six hours there.
Swingley arrived about three and a half hours ahead of Linwood Fiedler, but Fiedler had not yet served his eight-hour required break on the Yukon.
Also in Eagle Island was Jeff King, who made the 60-mile run from Grayling in 7 hours, 43 minutes, compared with Swingley's 9 hours, 50 minutes. But mushers also take breaks between checkpoints, so the comparative speeds may not be reflected in checkpoint-to-checkpoint times. Still, King made up some time on the run, putting him into Eagle Island about four and a half hours after Swingley.
Jerry Riley was still on the trail from Grayling, followed by five-time winner Rick Swenson and 2000 runner-up Paul Gebhardt. Martin Buser, Sonny King of South Carolina, John Baker, and Mitch Seavey finished out the top ten.
King said his team wasn't out of the running, with Nome was still 421 miles away.
"They're fast and I like going fast," King said of his team, which was traveling more than 1 mph faster than his competitors, including Swingley.
Race officials said two dogs died Friday, but both mushers were allowed to continue in the race after official found no signs of mistreatment or negligence.
One was a dog named Carhartt that had been dropped Tuesday by Kasilof musher Jon Little, who was in 19th place Saturday. He said he left the dog behind because it looked tired and wasn't eating well.
The dog died of a bacterial infection of the chest cavity lining, according to necropsy results released by race officials. They said trail veterinarians who took in the dog at the Nikolai checkpoint saw nothing indicating a serious medical problem. The dog was released Thursday to a recreational musher who has cared for dropped dogs for four years. She found the dog dead Friday morning.
The other dog fatality occurred on the trail from Iditarod to Shageluk Friday evening. The three-year-old male named Dan was in the team of Hans Gatt, who was running 15th on Saturday.
Animal rights activists have criticized the Iditarod as cruel to the dogs.
Margery Glickman, founder of the Sled Dog Action Coalition in Miami, a group opposed to competitive sled dog racing, said it was an outrage the dog died "because people are trying to make money."
In response to earlier critics, race officials have gone to great lengths to monitor dog health on the trail, with teams of volunteer veterinarians at every checkpoint.
One dog died in last year's race, and one dog died the year before.
Fifty-nine mushers remained in the 1,100-mile race to Nome Friday. Eight have scratched, and one was officially withdrawn for having a non-competitive team.