Iditarod contenders hope to seize the race

Wade Marrs pulls into Rainy Pass Monday.

MCGRATH, Alaska (KTUU) - This year's Iditarod field has a number of up-and-coming contenders hoping to make 2018 their first Iditarod win, but there are three former champions in the race they'll have to get past first.

“Clearly there’s a changing of the guard,” Jeff King, one of those returning champions, told Channel 2 before this year’s race. “I turned 62 this month and some of the other champions have stepped aside as they move on to what they’re going to do in retirement or another part of their life.

[John Baker withdraws from Iditarod, says racing future unlikely]

But for those still in the race, there’s still prize money to be won. Ray Redington Jr, whose grandfather, Joe Redington, Sr., started the Iditarod race, has finished in the top 10 in five of the past seven years. He led the race into Rainy Pass Monday. While father and son Mitch and Dallas Seavey have amassed the last six straight Iditarod championships, the Redingtons’ mushing roots run deep. Ray, 42, is just one of three Redington grandsons in the race this year. By Monday evening, his brother Ray led the race in to Nikolai.

Also in contention is Nic Petit, who won four of his mid-distance races this season. “I’ve already won 1,000 miles of racing,” he joked with a Channel 2 reporter

Petit, 36, holds that he’s a musher without a plan – and that he runs the race based on how his team is doing. Nonetheless, he has finished in the top 10 in four of the past five races -- last year's third-place finish was his highest -- and he's seen a lot of success this season.

Aliy Zirkle has long been a fan favorite to be the next woman to win the Iditarod. She nearly pulled it off three years in a row, in 2012, 2013 and 2014. Each time she took second to either Dallas or Mitch Seavey.

This year, Zirkle’s husband, Allen Moore, won the Yukon Quest, finishing with a full 16-dog team. Thirteen of those same dogs are on Zirkle’s Iditarod team. “We just got a huge dump of snow (in Fairbanks) so our dogs are ready for snow,” she told Channel 2 at the musher’s banquet last week. “They’re ready for cold weather, and if they keep up, I’ll keep up with them, so there’s the deal.”

Then there’s Wade Marrs, the president of the Iditarod Official Finishers’ Club, who got a lot of face time this year due to scandals over dog doping and the handling of the aftermath. Now running his seventh Iditarod, the 26-year-old is one of the up-and-comers, with three straight top-10 finishes under his belt.

Is this his year? “(You) never know,” he said Monday in Rainy Pass, where he was the sixth to arrive, “We’ll give it everything we’ve got and see what happens. We’re definitely hoping for a win.”

Jessie Royer is another contender for the top 10. The 41-year-old, who grew up in Montana, has placed as high as fourth in 2015. She’s finished in the Top 10 six times since 2005.

Though for all the up-and-comers, you can’t throw out the experience of last year’s champion. Mitch Seavey, the only champion in the race with fewer than four wins (he has three), is twice the oldest musher to win, and in 2017 did it in record time – though the Fairbanks-to-Nome route isn’t quite as long as Willow-to-Nome.

“(My) strategy is just go faster, get there sooner,” Seavey told Channel 2 before this year’s Iditarod. “The dogs love to go fast and we’ve got a great race schedule and a great race plan.”

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