Eddie Burke Jr. fends off Brent Sass for Knik 200 title

Published: Jan. 9, 2023 at 3:36 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Those following the trackers from home weren’t sure who was going to be the first to the finish at he 2023 Knik 200, with reigning Iditarod champion Brent Sass and up-and-coming musher Eddie Burke Jr. leapfrogged each other down the stretch, until the hungry 33-year old Anchorage musher made the final move.

”I go, ‘I am going to snack my dogs one more time and I am going to go by him,” an icicle-bearded Burke Jr. said after winning the Knik 200 Sunday. “That’s what I did, we just kind of just throttled up.”

Burke Jr., who has yet to compete in a thousand-mile sled dog race, made his presence known at the first major mid-distance race in Alaska this year by becoming the first finisher to pull up outside of the Knik Bar at about 11:15 a.m. on Sunday morning. Burke’s race time was 25 hours and 17 minutes of fast racing on the historic trails.

”It was emotional coming in that last mile, it was kind of like, ‘I think we are going to pull this off’,” Burke Jr. said, who is registered for the 2023 Iditarod. “It is just really rewarding. I have worked with these dogs and been developing them over the past three years, and just to see them grow — and then now competing with some of the best dog teams in the world.”

Burke Jr., who runs with dogs from Aaron Burmeister’s Alaska Wildstyle Racing Kennel, knew he had is work cut out for him with the talented and experienced field of mushers if he wanted to start of his mushing season with a victory.

”I knew it was going to be tough — I’m surprised I even caught him. They had a 20-minute head start on me leaving here, so I was surprised that I caught him,” Burke Jr. said of the back-and-forth with Sass. “Brent knows how to drive a dog team, you know. And those just phenomenal, phenomenal dogs that he has, so I knew it was going to be a battle, but I asked and they performed, and here we are.”

As for Sass, competing in his first Knik 200 with his ‘B Team’ ahead of a busy season for the veteran was a change of pace.

“I haven’t been a rookie in a race in quite a while, cause I have run most races in the state over and over, but this was one I haven’t ever been to,” Sass said.

“I was stoked to be here, and the trail — I mean this was some good dog mushing. This was probably some of the best trail I have mushed on in some time,” Sass said after loading up his dogs for the drive back to Eureka.

“Really for me, this race — because it was the young ones — competition was on the back burner a little bit for me. Obviously, I am out there to win and be as good as I can in every race, but the focus in this one was getting them happy and healthy and across the finish line.”

Sass, who finished with all 14 dogs, is signed up for the Copper Basin 300 starting on Jan. 14 , the Kuskokwim 300 on Jan. 27, the Alaska Yukon Quest 500 the first week of February and the Iditarod set for March 4.

While Sass used this race as a warm up — and Burke Jr. as a chance to burst on the scene — each musher approached the early-season race in different ways.

For Canada’s Aiyana O’Shaughnessy, who has been training under veteran musher Michele Phillips, it was her first 200-mile sled dog race.

”I am just excited to be in Alaska up this way for the first time, so that’s pretty cool,” O’Shaughnessy said ahead of the race before completing her first race in one day, 11 hours and 32 minutes.

Eric Kelly completed his first Iditarod in 2022 and used this race as a way to set the pace for the rest of the season.

”It’s our home trail. I’ve been actually been training off the lake all week,” Kelly said. “I am excited to run it, we’re not going to push, we are going to do it four 50-mile runs and take our time and enjoy it.”

For Knik’s very own Jason Mackey, a chance to reflect on trails in his first competitive race since the passing of his younger brother and mushing legend Lance Mackey.

”My dad and Joe [Redington] Sr. put the first trail markers here. And I remember as a kid riding in the sled with my dad out here,” Mackey said while putting booties on his dogs before the race. “Kind of an honor to be keeping the thing going, you know.”

Following top finishers Burke Jr. and Sass were Nic Petit, Hugh Neff and Michelle Phillips. Full race results can be found here.

Up next on the sled dog racing schedule is the Copper Basin 300, with the first musher set to take off from downtown Glenallen at 10 a.m. on Jan. 14.