Reigning Iditarod champ Brent Sass drops out of race over health concerns

A man in a white ruffed fur parka
Brent Sass talks with a checkpoint official in Grayling on Friday, March 10. (Lex Treinen/Alaska Public Media)

Defending Iditarod champion Brent Sass scratched from the 2023 race in Eagle Island on Saturday due to health concerns.

Iditarod officials said in a brief statement that Sass’s 11 dogs were in good shape, but Sass felt he could not properly care for them anymore due to his personal “periodontal health.” 

A three-minute Iditarod Insider video from Eagle Island, shows Sass pulling into the checkpoint in first place at 9:38 p.m. Friday. He told the checker he was feeling “not great, but alive.”

Sass said things had been “taking a turn” for awhile, “I just really wasn’t accepting it.”

“I’ve been kind of sick on and off the whole race, but it kind of hit hard today,” he said. “Also I have three cracked teeth that I haven’t dealt with and this morning — they’ve been kind of on and off giving me a hard time — but this morning it’s just kind of been a steady ache, non-stop kind of all day long.”

In an Instagram post Saturday night, Sass went into even more detail. He said he had a bad cold the whole race: chest pain, body aches, a sore throat. It kept getting worse. Then the pain from his cracked teeth started to become unbearable. Temperatures dropped to 30 degrees below zero.

“My body basically shutdown and for two runs I just hung on,” he said in the post. “Ultimately I couldn’t care for the dogs.”

Sass said he felt like his dog team could tell he was suffering. He told the Insider that during a rest earlier Friday, he slept the whole time “and didn’t do all the things that I needed to do with the dogs.” 

“And they noticed that. And they’ve been noticing it the whole time,” he said.

He said when the team went to leave after the rest “it was like the worst takeoff ever.” He said the dogs ran OK into Eagle Island.

“It’s just a matter of if I can get myself back to something that I feel like I can do them justice,” he told the Insider.

Sass officially scratched at 7:42 a.m. Saturday.

Iditarod officials said a plane would pick Sass up at Eagle Island and get him to medical care. His dog team would also be flown out.

The Eagle Island checkpoint is nearly 600 miles into the race, located on a remote stretch of the Yukon River between Grayling and Kaltag. The only building at Eagle Island is a cabin.

Reached by phone in Nome on Saturday morning, Sass’s father, Mark Sass, said he was still waiting to hear more about what had happened.

“Yeah, I’m pretty sad, but it is what it is,” he said. “I just want him to be OK.”

On Instagram, Sass said he was being take care of in Unalakleet and the dogs were on their way to Anchorage.

“My amazing support crew of friends and family are working on logistics to get me and the dogs home so I can deal with my health and teeth issues ASAP,” he said. “Thank you to everyone for all the support all season this is not the ending to the Race that we wanted but I was forced to do what was in the best interest of my dogs and myself. It’s time to get well and focus forward!”

His post included a selfie of him on his sled, behind his team of dogs outside of Anvik.

“I was in some terrible pain but still right (where) I wanted to be,” he said.

This is the second scratch of this year’s Iditarod. Rookie Jennifer LaBar scratched in Rainy Pass on Monday due to a finger injury.

Thirty-one teams remained in the race as of Saturday morning. 

Sass claimed his first Iditarod championship in 2022, mushing to the win after his sled, with a broken runner, tumbled down a hill during an intense windstorm in the final stretches of trail. His team was able to find their way just in time, before five-time champ Dallas Seavey could catch up.

Ryan Redington took over the lead of this year’s race on Saturday, and was the first musher into Kaltag, at race mile 652. He was followed closely by Richie Diehl, Pete Kaiser, Jessie Holmes and Kelly Maixner.

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Ben Matheson is covering the 2023 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at

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