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Yukon Quest too close to call

Maia Nolan-Partnow
Brent Sass's sled sits at the Dawson City checkpoint on the 2014 Yukon Quest trail. Sass and Allen Moore have been trading the lead back and forth on a fast, windy trail, with a winner expected late Sunday night. Yukon Quest / Tom Barber

It's a "nail-biter."

That's how the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race described the action in the race's final legs on its Facebook page as Saturday afternoon darkened into Saturday evening. After trading the lead for most of the 1,000-mile race, Brent Sass and reigning champion Allen Moore spent Friday and Saturday leapfrogging past one another in the final stretches toward Takhini Hot Springs, Yukon Territory, which will stand in for Whitehorse as this year's finish line. (Weird winter weather appears as though it could be poised to disrupt the state's other long-distance sled dog race, too, as the Iditarod Trail Committee considers the possibility that it may have to move its official restart next month north to Fairbanks.)

Sass was first into the halfway point, Dawson City, on Wednesday. Moore zoomed around him to be first into Pelly Crossing Friday. Later that night, Sass roared out of Pelly Crossing in first place after resting just 16 minutes. Moore was first into Carmacks, 177 miles from the finish line, around midday Saturday. Then, according to a post from the Quest around 2 p.m., this happened:

"When did Allen leave?" was the first thing Brent said as he rolled into Carmacks. Upon finding out (Moore) was still resting, (Sass) said he'd be blowing through the checkpoint. "I'm tired, stupid and haven't slept in days," says Brent.

Sass spent just 20 minutes in the checkpoint and took the lead out of Carmacks, shouting to a Yukon Quest videographer on his way out: "Wild and free as always!"

Moore headed out of Carmacks shortly before 4 p.m. with 11 miles to make up to catch Sass on the trail to a mandatory eight-hour layover (and, probably, a 12-inch cinnamon bun) at Braeburn Lodge, the final checkpoint before the last 100-mile push to Whitehorse. Hugh Neff, who had been leading with Moore and Sass earlier in the race, was expected into Carmacks later Saturday evening, according to the Quest's Twitter feed

Further up the trail, Cody Strathe led Matt Hall and John Schandelmeier toward Stepping Stone, while Ken Anderson, Torsten Kohnert, Curt Perano and Dave Dalton headed for Scroggie. Toward the back of the pack, Jerry Joinson, Mandy Nauman and Brian Wilmshurst were all preparing to leave Dawson City late Saturday night after their mandatory rests. Hank DeBruin, currently bringing up the rear, will be eligible to leave Dawson City shortly before 7 a.m. Sunday.

Rookie Tony Angelo was withdrawn from the race midday Saturday. According to a media advisory issued by the Quest, Angelo "requested assistance by activating the emergency assistance button on his race tracking device." Canadian Rangers responded and found Angelo and his team of Siberians healthy but unable to continue. Further details weren't immediately available, but reports from the trail were that high winds were creating harsh conditions along the Yukon River. Mike Ellis, Normand Casavant and Jean-Denis Britten all scratched earlier in the race.

A finisher is expected in Takhini Hot Springs late Sunday night, with fast trail seeming to guarantee the winner will finish in record-breaking time. If Moore overtakes Sass, it will be his second consecutive win and a family sweep; his wife, Aliy Zirkle, won the Yukon Quest 300 on Monday. For Sass, who finished third last year, maintaining the lead will mean his first Yukon Quest victory. His musher profile page identifies just one goal for this year's race: "To win."

Contact Maia Nolan-Partnow at maia@alaskadispatch.com.