There are so many multiple champions because experience matters. You therefore must include the defending champion, Dallas Seavey. It’s his race to lose. The target is on his back. Unfortunately for his competitors, Dallas is pretty level-headed and, despite his apparent youth, a very experienced musher, the third generation of his family, the son of another champion. Any front runner will be asking what Dallas is doing. Big, sturdy all-weather dogs.
Next, another champion, Big John Baker, champion before Dallas, a musher who positively relishes the foulest weather. If the weather turns nasty, and he’s in position, Big John will be a threat. He holds the record for finishing in the shortest time ever, and he took it over the longer, Southern Route, raced in odd years. With Big John, slow and certain, and long killer stints on the trail, add up to fast from checkpoint to checkpoint.
Ally Zirkle, leading the 1200 mile Iditarod in 2012, cutting a corner tighty, fighting to keep her sled upright
If the weather’s fine and the trail is good, smaller, faster dogs come into play. Last year Aliy Zirkle ran out front almost all the way, to be overtaken by Dallas Seavey near the end. Men and women run on equal terms, and you have to weight up whether Aliy, lighter and riding the runners, going like the clappers, will be faster than Dallas, heavier, running for hours behind his sled so the dogs don’t have to pull his muscle along, going like the clappers, has the better clappers. I suspect we’ll see on the run from Anvik through Grayling to Eagle Island, up the Yukon with the wind in their faces.
Only an idiot rules out Jeff King, the most scientific of the mushers, a multiple winner. Every likely winner has a shortlist of three mushers who can take the race from him. Jeff King features on each and every one of those shortlists. Don’t count out Jeff King because he gives away thirty years to Dallas Seavey.
I was away from the Iditarod between 1989 and the 2011 race, but one of the first guys I picked when I returned was Ramey Smyth, because he looked so much like the beau ideal of the profesional mushers coming in just then. I’ve been watching Ramey from afar, and this could be his year. Smiling, charming Ramey is a relentless competitor.
Nothing startling about this list. These mushers are in every informed observer’s top ten.
Every year I also choose a couple of outsiders. I’ve for instance chosen Peter Kaiser one year, but he’s no longer a young turk, he’s on everyone’s top ten list, high up on some. It would be a cheat to pick him again on the principle that “I told you he was a comer.”
So this year I’ll choose a rookie, and an outsider, a Norwegian. I reckon Joar Leifseth Ulsom, the hearthrob or Roros, Norway, 26, is, on the record of past Norwegian entries, worth a bet for an early entry into the top ten, perhaps this year.
I’ve also picked DeeDee Jonrowe as a personal favorite for the last two yard, and last year she came in just outside the top ten. DeeDee is hard as nails and very experienced. “Veteran” hardly describes a woman who has 3o or so Iditarods to her credit and has won half a million dollars in this event. If there’s an upset, DeeDee, 59, another fast lady, could show some of those boys her heels.
Now there are screams of outrage from the peanut gallery. How can I not choose Lance Mackey, the most recently dominant racer? Well, it’s that luck thing. Mackey had such a bad race last year, he was joking about a champion become the Red Lantern, the back marker. It takes a while for your confidence to recover from such a setback.
How can I not choose Aaron Burmeister, on his pre-Iditarod form a likely winner, or Martin Buser, always a threat, even more so now that he has his son Rohn’s best dogs in his team as well?
Well, if you choose five plus two outsiders, you run out of spots. I blame the organizers of the Iditarod. They should make it easier, not put up a slate of 66 winners.
So that’s my slate of five, in no particular order:
Dallas Seavey, defending champion
John Baker, immediately past victor
Aliy Zirkle, spectacular challenger, 2nd last year
Jeff King, multiple champion, scientific musher
Ramey Smyth, a champion in waiting
Plus, since five is simply an impossible limit, a couple of bets with marginally longer odds:
DeeDee Jonrowe, perpetual threat
Joar Leifseth Ulsom, worth a bet for a rookie Top 10 finish
We’ll see under the arch in Front Street in Nome in about 12 days whether I’m right.