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ANCHORAGE — Veteran John Baker seized the lead in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on the Yukon River and extended it Saturday on the 70-mile stretch from Eagle Island to Kaltag.
Averaging 7.6 mph, Baker made the run in 9 hours, 14 minutes, reaching Kaltag at 1:19 p.m.
That was 1 hour, 43 minutes sooner than Ramey Smyth, who reached the village at 3:02 p.m., covering the stretch in 8 hours, 23 minutes.
Other veteran mushers with strong teams were expected to follow shortly. Race spokesman Chas St. George said he couldn’t remember when so many contenders were bunched close to the front this late in the race.
“By now usually you have two or three,” he said. “This is like six or seven.”
Sebastian Schnuelle and mid-race leader Hugh Neff left Eagle Island at the same time as Smyth. Still in the mix and on the trail out of Eagle Island were veterans Hans Gatt, Ray Reddington Jr., Sonny Lindner, and four-time champion Martin Buser.
Kaltag, an Athabaskan Indian community of 172 residents, is the last checkpoint on the Yukon River and 359 miles from the finish line in Nome.
Baker surged into the lead of the 1,150-mile race with a late Friday night river run from Grayling to Eagle Island. He left Grayling at 4:17 p.m., five minutes behind Neff, the midway leader, and a half-hour ahead of reigning champion Lance Mackey.
Baker covered the 60 miles to Eagle Island in just under eight hours and reached Eagle Island first at 12:09 a.m. Saturday.
That was 16 minutes ahead of Neff, who reached the checkpoint at 12:25 a.m. Schnuelle followed at 2:35 a.m. and Smyth arrived two minutes later.
Baker rested his team for four hours, dropped one dog and left at 4:05 a.m. before first light.
Schnuelle of Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, also got back on his sled after four hours and left Eagle Island at 6:38 a.m.
Neff, of Tok, with six hours rest, left a minute after Schnuelle, as did Smyth, who had rested four hours.
Schnuelle and Smyth are running with 14 dogs. Neff has 12 in harness.
Mackey, meanwhile, reached Eagle Island at 12:57 a.m. Saturday but rested more than eight hours. His chances for a fifth straight title may be fading. He’s down to nine dogs and he left Eagle Island in 12th place, nearly five hours behind Baker.
The run along the Yukon River, North America’s third longest, to Kaltag completes the middle third of the race. From Kaltag, the trail turns southwest for a 90-mile run to the coast to Unalakleet on Norton Sound.
The 48-year-old Baker, a commercial pilot, is an Iditarod veteran with 11 top-10 finishes. His team should be ready for conditions along wind-swept Norton Sound. His hometown, Kotzebue, is 185 miles north of Nome on a peninsula that juts into the Chukchi Sea.
The race began March 5 with 62 teams. Seven mushers have scratched or withdrawn.