Tue, Mar 09, 2004 - Page 20 News List

Iditarod field gets off to a chilly start in Alaska

AP , WILLOW, ALASKA

Rookies and veterans alike got serious on Sunday with the restart in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, where some mushers chase the prize money and others the dream of finishing the longest sled dog race in the world.

After giving each of his 16 dogs a reassuring pat, and with a quick wave to the crowd, Iditarod veteran Vern Halter -- wearing a wide smile -- was the first to leave the restart at Willow.

The race's ceremonial start was Saturday in Anchorage. The restart was moved about 40km north this year because of an icy trail closer to Anchorage.

Halter, a 53-year-old lawyer and full-time kennel owner, is in his 16th Iditarod. His best finish was in 1999 when he was third. He's finished in the top 10 six times.

"I like that position," Halter said of going out ahead of the other teams in the record-large field of 87 this year. "If you're going to be in the top 10, you might as well be first."

Charlie Boulding, who normally finishes in the top 10 but scratched last year, was in 64th position to leave the restart gate. His best finish was in 1998 when he was third.

When asked if he thought he could win the Iditarod, Boulding grew angry. "If we don't, we're wasting our time. End of interview," he said before turning on his heel and walking off.

Mushers say the 1,770km race from Anchorage to Nome is a true test for both the dogs and the humans on the sled. Not only is the race expensive, by most accounts costing at least US$20,000 to run, there's the time required to train to just get to Nome.

Todd Capistrant didn't make it last year but is determined to finish in 2004. The former Wisconsin resident who moved to Alaska this year scratched in 2003 when his dogs got sick with vomiting and diarrhea. He said his team was under-trained. But he's got one-third more training on them this year, and some of his dogs come from three-time champion Jeff King and four-time champion Susan Butcher.

"I don't think it is any harder than I imagined. It's hard," Capistrant said of the race. "You find out what's inside. It tells you who you are."

The Iditarod, now in its 32nd year, commemorates a 1,084km relay from Nenana to Nome in February 1925 when dog teams successfully delivered serum to prevent an outbreak of diphtheria among children.

This year's record field has five former champions.

The 2004 Iditarod purse is more than US$700,000, with the winner getting US$69,000 and a new Dodge pickup truck worth US$41,410. About one-third of this year's record field are rookies.

It normally takes top teams nine to 10 days to finish. Four-time champion Martin Buser holds the course record of eight days, 22 hours, 46 minutes, set in 2002.

Four-time winner Doug Swingley is back after taking last year off. He and Buser will be looking to join Rick Swenson as the Iditarod's only five-time winner.

Teams from Alaska, Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming, are competing in the 2004 race. Mushers from Canada, Italy, Germany and Norway also are competing.

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