Insights from an Armchair Musher

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

I went out of the dog yard today on my side, whispering “whoa” to a crazy twelve-dog team. Whispering, because if one hollers, the dogs know they have you and go faster. I finally got them stopped and the sled upright after a short mile. Now, back in some semblance of control, I reflected how nice it was not to be running the Yukon Quest this coming weekend with those 26 poor suckers who are!

The Quest starts in Whitehorse, Yukon on February 7th. To this musher, who will be watching from the warmth of the cabin, it looks to the best field in a few years. It is fun to second-guess the teams from the living room. I should have some level of expertise, having seen most of the competitive teams run this winter. However, the reality is, your guess is as good as mine.

I’ll discuss what I think I know, so the rest of the armchair dudes can take it apart. A look at the entries shows about eight obvious teams that could legitimately fit into the top five.

One certainly can’t bet against Allen Moore. Allen won the Copper Basin, albeit only by a couple minutes. SP Kennels had three teams in the top six at the CB300. It is hard to argue against that kennel and their very experienced driver.

Ray Redington, though technically a Yukon Quest rookie, is far from that. He picked up a lot of time on Allen in the last few miles of the Copper. The second Redington team also was in the mix. Ray plans well and thinks ahead.

Jeff King is back at the Quest after single-mindedly pursing the Iditarod for a couple of decades. Jeff may have fun running, but he is not running for fun. He is training a lot of dogs hard and surely is not racing for second place.

Hugh Neff will be at the starting line again. Hugh always has decent speed and has learned to be patient. I don’t think his is a winning outfit, but I am not foolhardy enough to count him out.

Joar Ulsom is also taking a look at the Quest. Joars’ team is a little older, but this was a fourth place Iditarod team run by a very savvy guy. Joar could be in the front five.

Brent Sass. Brent may well have the best-conditioned team on this year’s Yukon Quest. He has been training on early snow up in Manley. He has a good number of dogs to work with. Brent has the team to do very well if he can dig down and figure out what patience means. Maybe 2014 was educational and 2015 is his year. He ran a very smart race at this years’ Gin Gin 200.

Matt Hall is coming off a third-place run in the 2014 Quest. Matt has been running dogs since he could crawl and has a good crew. He may not be able to overcome lack of funding and dog numbers. I believe he has the dog expertise, and a couple of very well trained leaders. Adverse conditions will be in Matts’ favor.

Lance is racing after a short break from the Quest. His is a team I haven’t seen, though I hear things and have seen a team or two from his yard. Mackey has had some not-so-good runs the past couple seasons, but his history will tell you that he is very capable. I think that getting a winning team to Nome a few years ago with 15 of his original 16 dogs was amazing.

Scott Smith is running the Quest once more. Scott has considerable dog experience. He is not afraid to make unconventional runs to shake up the pack. On his last Yukon Quest he pulled off some very long runs that were quite successful.

There are few other pretty fair teams in the mix that may not squeeze into the top five under all circumstances, but given the right mix of weather and conditions, they will be close. Ryne Olson is running a very good team. She has good discipline and experience. Cody Strathe is running big dogs that can move well. A little more experience peppered with stubbornness could get him to sixth in this field.

That’s my take on the 2015 Yukon Quest. My pardons if I neglected to mention your team, but if they do well you can have fun poking at me! Here is my top five in order:

Allen Moore
Jeff King
Ray Redington
Brent Sass
Hugh Neff

Joar Ulsom, Matt Hall, Scott Smith or Ryne Olson are “pick um” for sixth.

That is what I think the top end of the field will look like. Equally important is the rest of the pack. For the most part, the rest of the teams are not quite as competitive. There are various reasons for this. Lack of race experience plays a part. Funding is a factor. Many of the teams that are not in the front have limited dog numbers in their kennels, and they prefer to work with the animals they have rather than buy or lease dogs for the sake of competition. Tony Angelo has a very nice, happy team of Siberians that he takes good care of. Mike Ellis also runs Siberians. They are a little racier and move along pretty good. Mike likely has some personal goals in mind. If he should get into the top ten in this field I’m sure he would feel like he won!

I can’t forget Norman Casavant or Ed Hopkins. Both of these guys have the experience and drive to be right up in there. How are we going to fit 15 teams into the top ten anyway?

There are also the surprise drivers that everyone, including me, overlooks. The team that no one gave a thought to will unexpectedly make a push to the front. Some of the hotrods will have troubles and scratch. All of us that are sitting at home will be watching and second-guessing. It is a race, after all; if the outcome was foregone, then we could pass out the prizes now and be done with the drama.

John Schandelmeier