Eureka musher Brent Sass scored his fifth Yukon Quest win Wednesday night, crossing the Fairbanks finish line with his 12-dog team at 7:45 p.m.
Sass was favored to win this year’s 550-mile version of the Quest, and he did just that with more than a three-hour lead over his closest competitor, Amanda Otto.
He was greeted by a crowd of dozens of cheering fans in the finish chute who braved single-digit temperatures to watch the team charge up the final hill on the banks of the Chena River.
Sass was led into Fairbanks by Slater and Pink, two brothers and veterans from his Iditarod champion team last year.
“Slater’s the best sled dog I’ll probably ever drive,” said Sass.
The 7-year-old is nearing the end of his racing career, and Sass said he was trying to enjoy every moment he could with him, but he’s also excited about the future.
“I’ve got like 13 of his sons and daughters right now, so I have high hopes for the future,” he said.
Mushers reported excellent trail conditions and some of the best snow coverage they’d seen over the race’s two summits, which teams had to navigate twice as they traversed a new course from Fairbanks to Circle and back to Nenana, before finishing in Fairbanks.
This year was also the first time the Quest — traditionally a 1,000-mile race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse — was held over a 550-mile distance after the Canada and Alaska board of directors split up this spring over a rules disagreement about mandatory rest. The Alaska race ultimately opted for little mandatory rest at checkpoints. Sass said that allowed him to stick to a consistent run-rest schedule.
“The big thing for me was to keep the runs shorter, 50 to 60 miles and not do the big pushes between checkpoints,” he said in the finish chute, surrounded by handlers and supporters.
For the win, Sass will take home $40,000, part of a $100,000 prize purse in this year’s Quest.
Just before midnight, Sass’s team was followed by surprise second-place finisher, 28-year-old Amanda Otto.
Otto’s team yelped in the finish line and pulled in their harnesses, apparently eager to keep running down the trail.
The dog’s energy was especially impressive considering Otto had made the second to last run — 100 miles — from Two Rivers to Nenana without stopping to camp. Along the way, she slingshotted in front of some top teams, including Nic Petit and Wade Marrs. Otto played down the run, despite being the only musher to try the strategy.
“At the end of the day I was just out there running the dogs, snacking, watering, running dogs for 100 miles,” she said at the finish.
She said she’d thought about the plan beforehand, but ultimately just watched the dogs. She overtook Marrs and Petit even after their teams had camped on trail.
“I wouldn’t normally do that long of a run, but they were up for the challenge and they excelled,” she said.
Otto, a former semi-pro soccer player, was running a dog team from four-time Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champion Jeff King’s kennel, where she’s worked for the past several years.
King, who handled for Otto along the trail, said he’s been impressed with Otto’s athleticism and commitment to the minute needs of the dogs. He said he could picture her winning the Iditarod some day.
“Easily,” he said. “She’s got the head of a champion.”
He said he suspects Otto’s success at the Quest will inspire her to keep racing.
Otto said she’s not sure what she’ll do with her $30,000 in winnings.
“It’ll probably go back to the dogs,” she said.
Wade Marrs of Wisconsin finished in third place, followed by Cody Strathe, Nic Petit and Riley Dyche.