NOME, Alaska — John Baker was leading Monday in what could turn out to be an Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race record-breaker as he turned his team toward Nome and familiar territory for the Alaska native musher along the western coast.
If the Kotzebue musher keeps up the pace, slightly faster than the other top teams, Baker and his dogs could break by two hours the Iditarod record of eight days, 22 hours and 46 minutes for the ,1,150-mile race by four-time champion Martin Buser in 2002.
“They are going to shatter that record,” said race judge Jake Berkowitz in the Elim checkpoint about 120 miles from the finish line in Nome.
Baker was the first musher out of the Elim checkpoint on Monday morning. Ramey Smyth arrived in Elim about an hour behind Baker, and he was followed about two hours later by Hans Gatt.
Veterinarians at the Elim checkpoint said Baker’s team looked strong and his dogs were running well.
At this late point in the race, it is Baker’s to lose, Berkowitz said.
Baker has had 11 top-10 finishes in 15 years of Iditarod racing, but has never finished first. Confusion and fatigue cost him dearly in the 2010 race when he lost five hours about halfway into the race because he became convinced that he had lost the trail, when actually he was still on it. At the time, he was near the front of the pack and his team was running well when his mistake cost him a chance at winning. He salvaged what he could and still managed to finish fifth, one place ahead of Smyth.
Gatt, who was second last year, said he didn’t think his team or anyone else’s at this point could catch Baker as long as his dogs continued to perform.
Gatt said his team was getting tired.
“No, I am just trying to stay ahead of everybody else,” Gatt said, when asked about his chances of winning. He said at the restart in Willow that this would be his last Iditarod.
In Elim, four veterinarians examined the dogs, listening to their hearts, checking for good hydration and making sure they were eating well and maintaining good weight. During the race, dogs can consume more than 10,000 calories a day.
Baker’s dogs were in good shape, said Vincent Gresham, a volunteer veterinarian from College Station, Texas. “John’s team looked real strong,” he said.
Baker has the home-court advantage as he heads for Nome. The rolling hills and wind-blown coastal areas of western Alaska are familiar training territory for him. He could be seen Monday using a ski pole and kicking to help his team up the rolling hills between Elim and Golovin. At times, he lay flat over the top of his sled to get out of the wind.
Baker has said that he intends to keep to his race schedule regardless of what the competition is doing. If he does, he could arrive in Nome Tuesday morning. All teams are required to rest their teams eight hours in White Mountain before beginning the short run to Nome.
Sixty-two teams began the Iditarod on March 6. Fifty-two teams remain in the race with the others either being scratched or withdrawn.