NOME - Victory in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is all but assured for either of two past winners who were waging a tight contest expected to end early this morning in this frontier town.
There's a second-tier race underway in the 1,100-mile trek to Nome. A trio of strong contenders was jostling for third place Tuesday behind defending champion Lance Mackey of Fairbanks and four-time winner Jeff King of Denali Park.
Mackey was slightly ahead of King in a race where half the top 10 mushers were previous champions, including 2004 winner Mitch Seavey of Seward, four-time winner Martin Buser of Big Lake and Rick Swenson of Two Rivers, the Iditarod's only five-time winner.
Mackey and King have been running practically neck-and-neck in the last leg of the race. Mackey was first to reach the White Mountain checkpoint, 77 miles from the Nome finish line, arriving with 11 dogs at 8:53 a.m. Tuesday, followed at 9:50 a.m. by King and his full team of 16 dogs. All mushers are required to take an eight-hour break in White Mountain before heading up the icy Bering Sea coast for the homestretch.
Auke Bay musher Deborah Bicknell checked into Nulato with 10 dogs at 2:22 p.m. in 81st place.
Running an equally competitive race were Hans Gatt, a three-time Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race winner from Whitehorse, Yukon, Ken Anderson of Fairbanks and Ramey Smyth of Willow.
Gatt, tentatively in third place, was the first to leave Elim, but not by much. Gatt left the checkpoint - 123 miles from Nome - with 12 dogs at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, followed five minutes later by Anderson and his 15 dogs and 17 minutes later by Smyth and nine dogs.
The 49-year-old Gatt has done back-to-back runs in the Iditarod and the 1,000-mile International Yukon Quest Sled Dog Race in the same year. But he never came close to matching the feat attained in 2007 by Mackey, who became the first musher to win both races in the same year. Mackey, a throat cancer survivor, won his fourth consecutive Quest last month and is aiming for another double win.
"I didn't enjoy running both races," Gatt said earlier at the Ruby checkpoint. He skipped the Yukon Quest this year and is running his best Iditarod ever.
Anderson, 35, was runner-up in his first Quest this year, finishing 15 minutes behind Mackey, his neighbor. At the Iditarod's March 1 ceremonial start in Anchorage, Anderson said he was hoping for the same friendly rivalry with Mackey but "obviously not" the same finish.
Smyth, a 32-year-old lifelong Alaskan, has run Iditarod since 1994, missing only one race since. Smyth has been a top-10 finisher four times, with his best showing a fourth place in 2004.
The top 30 finishers will get a piece of the $875,000 purse. The winner gets $69,000 and a $45,000 truck.
Twelve mushers have scratched since the start of the Iditarod and one has been withdrawn. The latest out of the race was 43-year-old Steve Madsen of Cougar, Wash., who scratched Tuesday in Galena, citing concern for the health of his 11-dog team. Eighty-two mushers remain on the trail. Two dogs have died in this year's race, including a 3-year-old female struck by a snowmobile.
In its 36th running, the Iditarod commemorates a run by sled dogs in 1925 to deliver lifesaving diphtheria serum to Nome.