FAIRBANKS - With three former champions, three runners-up and several other compelling entrants, the 2010 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race field is the strongest in recent memory - and perhaps ever.
Headlining the 27-musher list is Lance Mackey of Fairbanks, the Quest winner from 2005-08.
Mackey could have plenty of company up front with the likes of three-time champ Hans Gatt of Whitehorse, Yukon; Ken Anderson of Fairbanks who finished 15 minutes behind Mackey in 2008; Hugh Neff of Tok, this year's runner-up by just four minutes; Zack Steer of Sheep Mountain, second in 2004; Gerry Willomitzer of Shallow Bay, Yukon, third in 2007; Ramey Smyth of Houston, Alaska, a Quest rookie who placed third at the 2008 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race; and Two Rivers' Sonny Lindner, who won the inaugural Quest in 1984 but hasn't raced it in 18 years.
"This year is probably the most competitive field I've ever seen," Gatt said on Tuesday.
The entire aforementioned bunch is also doubling in March's Iditarod, a prospect more palatable for some because the Quest has moved its starting date ahead one week to Feb. 6.
The roster also includes Dave Dalton of Healy, who will start his 20th race; Brent Sass of Fairbanks, fifth in 2008; seven women; and two mushers who scratched this year, Joshua Cadzow of Fort Yukon and Jason Mackey of Kasilof. Two Belgians and a Swiss are also entered.
"Gosh, what a diverse group," new Quest Fairbanks executive director Marty Steury said. "It should make for some great stories."
A notable absence is defending champion Sebastian Schnuelle, who has said he is leery of the Fairbanks to Whitehorse direction because it would mean asking a tired team to run past his kennel near Whitehorse. Also out is longtime fan-favorite William Kleedehn of Carcross, Yukon, who says he has retired from competitive mushing to focus on other activities. Meanwhile, Dan Kaduce of Chatanika and Michelle Phillips of Tagish, Yukon, are giving the 1,100-mile Iditarod a go for the first time.
With the guaranteed Quest purse at $150,000, the winner will earn $28,395 while the runner-up gets $20,280 and third place makes $16,215. The purse peaked at $200,000 in 2007, when Mackey took home $40,000.
"As tough as times are (economically), it's just as tough for the athletes that run this race," Steury said. "One of my goals is to get to a point where it pays them more."
Mushing expenses have gone up dramatically in recent years. "Runner plastic is $50 a pair. It used to be $30," Anderson said.
While Anderson would like to see less of a gap in prize money between the top places, he said "that's a big chunk of change that's worth racing for."
Anderson skipped the 1,000-mile Quest this year because he didn't have enough dogs that were capable of running the Quest and Iditarod. Now he does.
"I like the fact that we have an extra week to rest the dogs," Anderson said.
Gatt, one of the first to do both races back-to-back, said his participation in the Quest is not influenced by who signs up - though that does influence his enjoyment of it.
"The better the competition, the more exciting it is, the more I like the race," said Gatt, who debated whether to enter until last Friday.
Gatt scratched this year in Dawson City, a move that surprised everyone because he was in fourth place. Gatt said at the time he was saving his team for the Iditarod (where he wound up 10th).
"That's not going to happen again," Gatt said of dropping out.
Mackey, also the three-time defending Iditarod champion, could not be reached Tuesday because he was on an extended mushing trip in the snow-laden Eureka area off the Elliott Highway. Mackey withdrew his Quest entry for the 2009 race in part to help prepare a Native musher with the Army National Guard for the Iditarod.
Last Friday was the deadline to sign up for an entry fee of $1,500. Mushers still can enter until Jan. 9 but must pay an extra $500.
Twenty-nine mushers started this year and 18 finished.
The entire field for 2010 consists of Ken Anderson, Fox; Cindy Barrand, Kasilof; Joshua Cadzow, Fort Yukon; Normand Casavant, Whitehorse; David Dalton, Healy; Katie Davis, Olney, Mont., Bart De Marie, Christopher Lake, Saskatchewan; Sam Deltour, Belgium; Mike Ellis, Two Rivers; Peter Fleck, Wasilla; Hans Gatt, Whitehorse; Kelley Griffin, Wasilla; Pierre-Antoine Heritier, Switzerland; Dries Jacobs, Belgium; Jocelyne LeBlanc, Whitehorse; Sonny Lindner, Two Rivers; Jason Mackey, Kasilof; Lance Mackey, Fairbanks; Becca Moore, Houston; Hugh Neff, Tok; Jennifer Raffaeli, Fox; Brent Sass, Fairbanks; Ramey Smyth, Houston; Zack Steer, Sheep Mountain; Abbie West, Two Rivers; Terry Williams, Fairbanks; and Gerry Willomitzer, Shallow Bay, Yukon.