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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Hundreds of dogs barked, bundled-up spectators cheered and snow fell steadily as 66 mushers and their teams began the 40th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Saturday with a run through downtown Anchorage.
Mushers said they welcomed the new snow, which added to near-record accumulations that have blanketed Anchorage and other parts of the roughly 1,000-mile trail to Nome.
They predicted the abundant snow would make for a safer and more competitive race, in an event that has grown from an obscure contest many considered a one-time lark into a world-famous, big-money sports extravaganza.
"The fast teams that have inexperienced drivers could be slowed down (initially)," said defending champion John Baker, who holds the race speed record of eight days, 18 hours and 46:39 minutes.
As Baker explained it, teams will have to avoid sprinting out for the first few hundred miles and will wind up with rested dogs that can run faster later in the race. "Before, everybody went out so fast. They're so tired in Skwentna ... that the race is over," he said, referring to a checkpoint 123 miles into the trail.
Baker, who sat in his truck and chatted before hooking up his dogs for the start of the race, said there were numerous top contenders this year. Along with six returning champions, there were several young mushers who could have breakout runs this year, he said.
Returning champions include four-time winners Lance Mackey, Martin Buser and Jeff King, five-time champion Rick Swenson and 2004 winner Mitch Seavey, as well as Baker. Some younger mushers who Baker said may be contenders include Aaron Burmeister of Nome, Jake Berkowitz of Big Lake, and Mike Williams Jr. of Akiak.
The winner will take home $50,400 and a new truck, part of an overall purse of at least $550,000.
But competition was not the focus of Saturday's event, an 11-mile untimed ceremonial run through Alaska's largest city. Timed competition does not start until Sunday in Willow, a small community about 80 miles north where the restart is set up on a frozen lake.
"Today is all about the fans and hanging out," said four-time champion Mackey, who posed for photos with spectators from as far away as Finland and autographed posters, magazines and even one man's boxed breakfast.
"Without my fans and their support of this face, I'd have a real job. Please! I don't want that to happen," he told a laughing audience.
But Sunday's start of the timed competition will be more serious, Mackey said later. "Tomorrow, all faces look the same to me. It's tunnel vision. I got a job to do," he said.
Some first-time Iditarod racers made their preparations amid a little less fan attention.
Race rookie Anjanette Steer of Sheep Mountain, Alaska, was one of those quieter mushers at the Anchorage start line. She was preparing to drive the family dog team instead of her husband, Zack, who has run six times and finished as high as third. "I want to be out there," she said. "It's my turn. "
Matt Failor, a first-time Iditarod competitor from Mansfield, Ohio, said neither he nor his dogs knew what to expect once they hit the trail.
"It's 17 rookies," he said, referring to himself and his 16 dogs. "They're never even seen Willow Lake."
Editing By Cynthia Johnston