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Two-Time Iditarod Champ Defends Title

A party atmosphere swirled around Alaska's largest city at the start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Saturday, when 67 mushers and more than 1,000 dogs set their sights for Nome.

Two-time defending champion Lance Mackey said he is going into the 2009 Iditarod with the same attitude as always: "Expect the worst and hope for the best."

Regardless of what happens along the 1,100-mile trail, Mackey is sure of one thing.

"We are going to have a heck of a race, no matter what," he said.

Saturday was mostly for the fans so that they can cheer on their favorite mushers, some of whom have rock star status in Alaska. Every two minutes, another team was released from the starting chute to go on a short run through Anchorage.

The real racing begins Sunday at the restart in Willow, about 50 miles north of Anchorage.

The Iditarod field this year is down from a record 96 teams in 2008. There are 52 veterans and 15 rookies entered. Thirteen are women.

Most of the big names are competing: Mackey, five-time winner Rick Swenson, four-time champions Jeff King and Martin Buser, and 2004 winner Mitch Seavey.

The $610,000 purse is down from $935,000 last year - a drop that race officials blame on paying out too much in prize money in the past two years. The top 30 finishers place in the money.

This year's winner will receive $69,000 and a new pickup, just like last year and the year before. But the others in the top 30 can expect less than in previous years.

"I still really do need a new truck," said Mackey, who drives a 1997 model. He traded his prize truck in last year for a Dodge Charger. He's gotten three speeding tickets, he said.

"I like going fast, not just on dogs," Mackey said.

Buser, who less than two weeks ago finished fourth as a rookie in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, said it will be interesting to see if Mackey can pull off another win with what is essentially a new dog team this year.

"If you have those super dogs, they put you over the top," Buser said.

But, he said, very few mushers can get back on top with a new team. There have been a few, himself included, Buser said.

"I can win it again," said Buser, who won the Iditarod in 1992, 1994, 1997 and 2002.

Race officials say mushers can expect plenty of snow this year. One of the many items mushers are required to take are snowshoes. This year mushers may have to put on their snowshoes and break trail for their dogs, an arduous task compared to gliding along on the back of the sled when the trail is hard and fast.

King said he's not concerned about the deep snow.

"Don't look for me putting my snowshoes on very long," he said.

DeeDee Jonrowe and Paul Gebhardt, who have each finished second twice, are again chasing the elusive title of champion.

"I really believe we are taking a team into this race that can win," said Jonrowe, a fan favorite dressed in a fuchsia parka lined in lamb and trimmed in wolf and wolverine.

King may feel like he has something to prove this year after making a rookie mistake last year. King has 16 top-10 finishes and looked like he was on his way to a fifth Iditarod win when he got snookered by Mackey just 123 miles from the finish line in Nome.

Mackey arrived at the checkpoint 3 minutes ahead of King, drank coffee and acted like he was settling in for long nap. He told checkpoint volunteers to wake him in an hour. But with King snoring he sneaked out ahead of his opponent.

King said Saturday that he would have been harder on himself for oversleeping if Mackey hadn't extended his lead going to the finish.

"It eased the pain," King said.

Sebastian Schnuelle of Whitehorse, Canada, is coming off a victory in the Quest and is competing in his fifth Iditarod. He placed 10th last year and hopes to improve on that.

Schnuelle, famous for his long, frizzy hair and beard, said he knows what it will take to win the Iditarod.

"Everything has to be right. There is no room for error," he said.

That said, the deep snow conditions this year favor his team.

"The dogs are very used to it," he said.

For their 20th wedding anniversary present, John Willems of Kiel, Wis., brought his wife, Penny, to Anchorage to watch the race start. Penny, a fourth grade teacher who uses the Iditarod as a teaching tool in her classroom, said she admires Mackey because of the way in which he tackled cancer. Her father died of cancer, she said.

"I always root for Lance. He's my guy" she said.