KALTAG - Defending champion Doug Swingley set a blistering pace down the Yukon River on Saturday to reclaim the lead in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Swingley, from Lincoln, Mont., covered the 42-mile stretch of trail from Nulato to Kaltag in a little over three hours, arriving at 1:05 p.m.
Kaltag is about 350 miles from the Iditarod finish line in Nome.
Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof drove his 10 dogs out of Nulato at 9:27 a.m., and Swingley followed 23 minutes later. Both mushers made only brief stops at the Yukon River village.
From Kaltag, the race continues 90 miles through the Nulato Hills to Unalakleet on the Norton Sound coast.
Charlie Boulding of Manley left Nulato at 2 p.m. Saturday. Six other mushers - including former winners Jeff King of Denali Park, Rick Swenson of Two Rivers, Martin Buser of Big Lake and Rick Mackey of Nenana - were all into Nulato by mid-afternoon Saturday.
Another nine mushers were on the trail from Galena to Nulato. That group includes Mitch Seavey of Seward, Tim Osmar of Clam Gulch and DeeDee Jonrowe of Willow.
Mackey said while Swingley's team was strong, it is not as dominant as it was last year, when it powered away from the field and won by more than eight hours.
``He's just got another dog team, like the rest of us,'' he told KNOM radio. ``They seem to be making good time, but maybe he's taking a lot out of them. He's trying hard to win.''
King said the contenders would be sorted out from the pretenders by the time the race reached the coast.
``We'll find out on the (Yukon) river who's really going to be in this race or not,'' he said before leaving Ruby. ``Historically, the first team to Unalakleet wins the Iditarod, and we're awful close.''
Swingley has said he considers Swenson his main competition this year, and predicted that when Swenson's team will pick up speed on the Yukon. Swingley said he had gotten a good look at Swenson's dogs and thought they had a lot of drive.
Eighty-one mushers began the race, which had its ceremonial start at Anchorage on March 4. Seven mushers have scratched so far. Shane Goosen of Wasilla, David Straub of Willow, Rich Bosela of Anchorage and Nelson Shughart of Newtown, Pa., all dropped out of the race in McGrath late Friday or Saturday.
The race purse is $525,000, with the winner taking home $60,000 and a new pickup truck. Prize money will be paid to the first 30 finishers.
On the Net: Iditarod Trail Committee: www.iditarod.com.