Sass headlines lower-than-usual field of 21 mushers at Iditarod sign up day

Published: Jun. 30, 2022 at 9:58 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - A total of 21 mushers have signed up for the 51st running of the historic Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, including defending champion Brent Sass, who did so remotely, as the lone competitor to have previously won the 1,000-mile trek to Nome.

Numbers for the 50th running saw 48 mushers sign up on the first day of registration, while as recent as 2016, 85 teams took off from the Willow restart.

The first name on the musher list for 2023 is none other than Ryan Redington, grandson of Joe Redington Sr., “The Father of the Iditarod.”

“I want to win it,” the Knik musher said, after signing up for his 16th consecutive race. “First place gets a 90-pound bronze statue of my grandpa and that is my dream is to take home that trophy of him. It has always been my childhood dream of running in the race and to win and I think I got a really good dog team and I’m excited. There’s a lot of great teams in the race and I am excited about this year’s race.”

Other familiar challengers from the 50th running searching for their first Iditarod title include Richie Diehl, Jessie Holmes, Mille Porsild, Dan Kaduce, Riley Dyche, Travis Beals and the Berington twins, Anna and Kristy, to name a few.

Nic Petit, who has seen six top 10 finishes in his career, was pulled from Iditarod 50 just days before the race due to a positive COVID-19 test, as legendary musher Jeff King took over his team for the race. With that behind him, the Big Lake musher is looking ahead to 2023.

“The hardest part was everybody telling me how sorry they felt. ... When you keep hearing it and hearing, not necessarily constructive,” he said with a laugh. “But whatever, just did what I could with what I had. I stopped dwelling on it right when I saw it happened.”

“Take a happy dog team to Nome,” he said of his goals in 2023. “When we move fast, they are happy, so we will go fast and might finish first, might not, who cares.”

Matthew Failor, of Willow, signed up for his 12th Iditarod, having to do the rare, but certainly not unthinkable act in the Alaska wilderness of dispatching an aggressive moose on the trail near Galena.

”Nobody wants to shoot a moose, it’s the last thing you want to do, but my number one job is to protect my team and my animals, and this moose had assaulted Martin Buser and Martin Massicotte,” Failor recounted, ultimately placing 30th in 2022. “I didn’t know that. So by the time I got there, it was pretty angry already and I gave it a wide berth but it came right at us. It just broke into like a slow lope, right for us. And so point-blank rage, I had to put her down.

“But while I was doing that, the dogs got scared from the gunshots and turned around and ran 180 degrees the wrong way, so I had to stop what I was doing and run back and jump on the sled. And I turned around and it was still coming at us. So it was a wild night, but none of the dogs got hurt, I didn’t get hurt. ... It’s more of a mental game, you know, you think you’re just going to keep moving down the trail and you hit these roadblocks, whether they are a moose or open water, and you have to figure out a way to keep going.”

Per Iditarod Rule 34, when edible big game, such as a moose, is killed in defense of life or property, the musher must gut the animal and report the incident to a race official at the next checkpoint.

Jessie Holmes saw his best finish ever when he reached the burled arch in Nome in third place, but his offseason quickly turned when loose sled dogs he owned attacked and killed a family dog that was tied up in its yard nearby.

“It is still a very recent memory, a very painful one,” Holmes said on sign-up day. “I think, you know, not just what I learned from it, I think a lot of people see what happened and I think a lot of us mushers, we do that because we such a good rapport with our dogs and turning them loose is not like a crazy, uncommon thing, which I think that a lot of people that aren’t familiar with mushing perceived it with me as like, ‘Oh what was this guy thinking, he just turned all his dogs loose like some crazy act of —' you know, and it just takes something wrong to happen. I was at the wrong place at the wrong time and I feel terrible for it and I learned a lot from it and I hope that other people did too.”

Holmes, of Brushkana, makes an effort each year to sign up in person.

“I love the sport, I love this race and I want to be a big supporter of it and I want to be here in person and I have been here in person every year,” the 2018 Rookie of the Year said. “I think it is a great time for us to be able to thank the volunteers, see other mushers. I live in a remote location so I love coming here and seeing everybody, thanking the volunteers and all the people who make this happen, it is a very important part.”

Some mushers are returning for their second Iditarod, but still hold rookie designation until they complete the 1,000-mile journey, such as Bridgett Watkins and KattiJo Deeter.

“I feel good about what I did last year, what I saw,” Deeter said. “Of course there is experience that is valuable there and meaningful, and that comforts the nerves a little bit but I did get caught in that super, super bad ground blizzard last year on the way to the finish line and I am trying not to think too hard about that but it is still daunting. 1,000 miles across Alaska is still daunting.”

True rookies ready to take on the trail for the first time include Willow’s Hunter Keefe and Anchorage’s Eddie Burke Jr., who learned under 21-time finisher Aaron Burmeister.

“He gave me an opportunity to train some pups and raise those dogs, bring them to their first dog race and from there, I have just been plugging away, getting my qualifiers, competing, building a team and now I think we are ready for the big show,” he said while wearing a Kobuk 440 sweatshirt, placing third in 2022. “I mean I am confident, yeah. I put a lot of work into this and I am dedicated, I am serious about it. I have finished every race I have entered so far. I don’t plan on scratching any time soon. I mean obviously, things happen, like I said it is a sport of a lot of variables, but this is what I have been dedicated to for the past three years.”

Jaye Foucher, of New Hampshire, was set to compete in her first Iditarod in 2022 before a training incident ultimately led her to withdraw. Her dog team jumped the trail and onto a highway where multiple dogs were struck by a vehicle, leaving one dead and three injured. Foucher is officially signed up for the 2023 Iditarod.

While there are notable names who have not registered for the 51st running of the Iditarod, both five-time champion Dallas Seavey and Burmeister, a longtime race staple and fan favorite in his hometown of Nome, hinted prior to the 2022 race that they may be stepping away from the race for now. 2019 Iditarod Champion Joar Leifseth Ulsom announced last week that he would not be competing in 2023 to spend more time with family, while four-time champion Martin Buser, who made his Iditarod debut in 1980, is not registered for the upcoming race. Other previous champions who have competed within the last three years and have not entered include Thomas Waerner (2020), Pete Kaiser (2019) and Mitch Seavey (2004, 2013, 2017).

Mushers have until Nov. 30, 2022, to sign up for the 51st Iditarod. The complete 2023 Musher List as of publishing can be found below.

2023 Iditarod Musher List

1Ryan RedingtonKnik, AKVeteran
2Matt HallTwo Rivers, AKVeteran
3Brent SassEureka, AKVeteran
4Grayson BrutonSterling, AKVeteran
5Richie DiehlAniak, AKVeteran
6Jaye FoucherWentworth, NHRookie
7Mille PorsildDenmarkVeteran
8Jason MackeyWasilla, AKVeteran
9Eric KellyKnik, AKVeteran
10Eddie Burke Jr.Anchorage, AKRookie
11KattiJo DeeterFairbanks, AKRookie
12Matthew FailorWillow, AKVeteran
13Dan KaduceChatanika, AKVeteran
14Bridgett WatkinsFairbanks, AKRookie
15Jessie HolmesBrushkana, AKVeteran
16Travis BealsSeward, AKVeteran
17Nic PetitBig Lake, AKVeteran
18Hunter KeefeWillow, AK (R)
19Anna BeringtonKnik, AKVeteran
20Kristy BeringtonKnik, AKVeteran
21Riley DycheFairbanks, AKVeteran

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