ANCHORAGE - Long before the Iditarod and Yukon Quest were born, the All Alaska Sweepstakes dominated the state's mushing scene.
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Born in 1908, the race put distance racing on the map and helped dog drivers make their name as well as their living. Then it vanished, opening the door for other races to move to the front of the pack.
But after a 25-year absence, the Sweepstakes is making a comeback. On March 26, 2008, the historic round-trip race from Nome to Candle will celebrate its 100th birthday.
Same rules, same trail. But this time, the stakes will be higher. The 408-mile Sweepstakes has a winner-take-all purse of $100,000, making it the biggest cash payout for a sled dog race in Alaska history. Only the Iditarod's $72,066 first-place payday in 2005 has come close.
Sweepstakes race rules are much different than the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
The 1,100-mile race from Anchorage to Nome allows mushers to drop injured, sick or tired dogs, requires one 24- and one 8-hour layover, and banishes outside assistance.
But in the Sweepstakes, where mushers are allowed to harness a maximum of 12 dogs, they can receive outside assistance from a pit crew and choose when their team rests.
But perhaps the most unique, and controversial, Sweepstakes rule is no dog drops. In other words, mushers have to finish with the dogs they start with.
"I think it's a great rule," said Nenana musher Aaron Burmeister. "It'll make the driver take it easy and pick only their best dogs." Chugiak musher Jim Lanier, a veteran of the 1983 Sweepstakes and 11 Iditarods, disagrees with the rule.
"The dogs that should be dropped, can't be dropped," he said. "That's not a good thing."
Typically, mushers are allowed to leave injured dogs at checkpoints. Now they'll have to pick the toughest dogs to blaze a seldom-used trail through some of Alaska's most taxing terrain. "The Sweepstakes is the ultimate grudge race," said Leo Rasmussen, a director on the Sweepstakes committee and former Nome mayor. "If you win this race, you are the ultimate dog musher in the world."
SWEEPSTAKES TO SERUM
Nome was the state's hub of activity in the early 20th century with its gold rush. The region bred the strongest, most durable sled dogs in the Last Frontier to haul freight.
But in 1908, the Sweepstakes was born when the Nome Kennel Club established the 408-mile race from Nome to Candle and back to celebrate the end of a long winter. Those same dogs turned into athletes.
Hundreds of bets were placed on which of the world's best teams could travel fastest on the well-packed survey trail - used daily by dog sleds and horse-drawn carriages to travel from one mine to the next. The race lasted 10 years, with Leonard Seppala winning his third consecutive title in 1917. But eight years later Seppala made a name for himself in the 1925 Serum Run. An outbreak of diphtheria struck Nome, and 20 dog drivers volunteered to haul a vial of serum more than 650 miles from Nenana to Nome.
Seppala drove 170 miles from Nome to Shaktoolik to relay the serum back to Nome. He totaled 261 miles - the longest distance of any Serum Run musher - and became the face of long-distance mushing.
"The Serum Run is really what made Nome famous," said Howard Farley, vice president of the Nome Kennel Club. "It's one of the greatest epics of all time."
But a decade after the Sweepstakes' debut, interest faded. The Serum Run now garnered the attention of top drivers because mushing became a necessity more than a sport.
Finally, after a 66-year absence, the Nome Kennel Club returned and brought the Sweepstakes back to glory for its 75th anniversary. In 1983, after finishing fifth in the Iditarod, Rick Swenson won the Sweepstakes and took home the first-place prize of $25,000.
The only sporting event older than the Sweepstakes is the Alaska Baseball League's Midnight Sun Game, which has been held in Fairbanks since 1906. The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race began in 1973, and the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race started in 1984.
As of now, only six mushers have signed up, although Rasmussen expects the list to grow as the registration deadline approaches. After Aug. 1, the registration fee increases from $1,500 to $1,750. After Feb. 1, 2008, the fee goes to $4,000. Mushers must also provide an ounce of gold ($700 value) in addition to their registration fee.
"It's a huge gamble, a huge expense," said this year's Iditarod and Yukon Quest champion Lance Mackey, who plans to race in the Sweepstakes.
But Mackey said the registration fee for the state's richest sled dog race is worth every penny because of the prestige a musher will feel by competing.
"It's the granddaddy of them all," Mackey said.
Scotty Allan of Scotland and Seppala each the won the Sweepstakes three times along with the legendary John "Iron Man" Johnson, who set the course record in 1910. He finished the 408-mile race in 74 hours, 14 minutes and 37 seconds, a mark that still stands.
So far the mushers chasing Johnson's historic mark are: Lance Mackey, Fairbanks. Jeff King, Denali Park. Sebastian Schnuelle, Whitehorse, Yukon. Mike Santos, Cantwell. Jim Lanier, Chugiak. Aaron Burmeister, Nenana.
Some plan to race the Sweepstakes purely for its romantic history. But for mushers looking to fatten their bankroll, it's all or nothing. The Sweepstakes won't see Sheep Mountain's Zack Steer, an Iditarod veteran who said he couldn't afford the dogs or the high-stake race. "You can't pay the bills on second place," he said.
ALASKA'S TRIPLE CROWN
The evening Mackey became an Idita-Quest champion, he chiseled his name in Alaska dog mushing lore forever.
But as he relished the historic victory - becoming the first musher to win the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest in the same year - Mackey envisioned something better. He wants to win the Sweepstakes to complete Alaska's triple crown.
An Iditarod fan asked Mackey in March about his future racing plans shortly after winning the Last Great Race.
"Defending your Iditarod title next year, Lance?" the fan yelled. But the 36-year-old wasn't interested.
Though Mackey had just won $69,000 and a new Dodge truck, all he could think about was winning the 2008 Sweepstakes and pocketing its lucrative $100,000 payday.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Mackey said. "Only two people are remembered in this race: the winner and (Red Lantern) loser."
It will be a busy race season for Mackey. He plans to defend his third straight Yukon Quest title, race in the Iditarod, then compete in the Sweepstakes.
The 100th anniversary of the Sweepstakes is scheduled roughly two weeks after the Iditarod winner typically crosses the finish line in Nome.
Information from: Anchorage Daily News, http://www.adn.com
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