March 17, 2015 / 9:04 AM / 3 years ago

Defending Alaska Iditarod champ leads pack in home stretch

JUNEAU, Alaska (Reuters) - The defending Iditarod Sled Dog Race champion led the pack on the home stretch of the near 1,000 mile (1,600 km) race across the Alaskan wilderness on Monday night, but a veteran in search of his first title was close on his tail.

2014 Iditarod Champion Dallas Seavey (2nd L standing) and IditaRider Gerald Ingram (seated) participate at the 2015 ceremonial start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog race in downtown Anchorage, Alaska March 7, 2015. REUTERS/Mark Meyer

Dallas Seavey, aiming for his third victory in four years, vied with Aaron Burmeister, who has three top-10 finishes and was the first to reach the race’s halfway point late on Thursday.

Not far behind were Seavey’s father, Mitch, Jessie Royer of Darby, Montana, and three-time runner-up Aliy Zirkle.

The race commemorates a 1925 rescue mission that delivered diphtheria serum by sled-dog relay to the western coastal community of Nome.

All five mushers took their last rest in the small coastal city of Koyuk, about 170 miles northeast of the finish line at Nome, after staggered arrivals.

“You know I was thinking about it coming into here (Koyuk): holy cow we actually stand a good chance of winning the Iditarod,” Dallas Seavey said in an interview posted on the Iditarod website as he prepared to leave the city.

“We’ll see where we are when the dust settles. I‘m not trying to get all giddy just yet,” he added.

The winner of the 43rd annual race takes $70,000 and a pickup truck.

Analyst and retired musher Sebastian Schnuelle reminded fans of last year’s wild home stretch finish along the Bering Sea coast, in a posting on the Iditarod website.

Strong winds knocked leader Jeff King and his dog team off the trail and out of the race lat year, then forced new leader Zirkle to pull over, leaving Seavey to forge ahead to the finish line.

“A lot can still happen,” said Schnuelle as he watched each leading musher leave Koyuk.  “170 miles of being the first team over the trail is a tough task, even for a Dallas Seavey.”

Editing by Curtis Skinner and Andrew Heavens

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