Yukon Quest champ Brent Sass talks about return to elite dog mushing

Brent Sass makes the final push to the finish line of the 2019 Yukon Quest. Sass won the race in a little more than 9 days, and with all of his 14 dogs. (Robin Wood/Fairbanks Daily News-Miner/The Associated Press)
He’s sitting out this year’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race — that starts March 2 in Anchorage, southcentral Alaska — but Eureka, AK musher Brent Sass just won the Yukon Quest again, after taking a year off from racing. Sass is a former Iditarod Rookie of the Year, and though he’s struggled in a couple other attempts at that race, he said his young dog team will likely be ready for an Iditarod run next year.

Sass has some thoughts on how controversy has affected the Iditarod and who he thinks could win this year. But first, he talked to Alaska Public Media’s Casey Grove about winning his second championship in the thousand-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race earlier this month.

Sass: This year’s race was a little different than a lot of the races that I’ve had in the past five years. You know, I had a real competitive team starting back in 2014 and ever since then, you know, my goal was to win the race. And so this was a little bit different because I took a year off last year and then I came into this race with a bunch of young dogs, a lot of dogs that had never raced before. Eleven of them had never been in the Yukon Quest before. I only had three veterans.

So I went into this race with really no expectations. To have fun, have a clean race, take care of my dogs and just focus purely on my team. And you know, that’s obviously everyone’s ultimate goal, but as you get competitive, things become more and more, you know, difficult to do that, and that was my main goal. And I didn’t pay attention to my competition at all. And so we were just out running dogs, literally, and it was a miracle team.

My whole crew there kind of sat down before the race and made a real clear plan. Based the second half completely on how that dog team looked when we got the Dawson, and — everything came together, is the short version of it. I stuck to that plan all the way to the finish line and and it brought us there in the first place. And you know, I mean, I had 14 at the finish line and they all could go run another thousand miles right now. It was it was definitely magic carpet ride.

Grove: The last time you were in the Iditarod, had kind of a rough go at the end, and you said your dogs could have run another thousand miles and I guess I kind of remember back to 2015 and you know, you just won the Yukon Quest, and the Iditarod disqualified you over having an iPod, which is a rule that they’ve changed now to make that allowed — I’ve got to ask, are you thinking about coming back to the Iditarod at some point?

Brent Sass, winner of the 2019 Yukon Quest international sled dog race, smiles during a post-race interview. (Robin Wood/Fairbanks Daily News-Miner/The Associated Press)

Sass: Yeah, and there’s a really good chance that will happen next year. You know all that stuff, it’s all part of my past. It had its positives and negatives. You know, I definitely love the Iditarod Trail. The trail itself is an amazing trail to travel on, the conditions are awesome. The competition is obviously the best in the world. And so it’s going to be hard to keep me away from there. I mean I think they’re starting to get things straightened out there, the Iditarod as well.

I mean, I got a good dog team, and these guys are all young, and they’re ready to rock and roll. I need to I need to seize the opportunity and race these dogs. I’m fired up and ready to go. I wish I was in Iditarod this year, but that’s not the right thing for my dog team. So it’s, again, it’s about being patient, doing what’s right for my dog team and I feel like right now I’m setting a goal to run the Quest and Iditarod next year.

Grove: Do you think some of the issues with the Iditarod — that’s kind of like a few different things. There was what people are calling “dog-doping” with like Dallas Seavey’s team. And some of the stuff with the board and, I guess, conflicts of interest — do you think those kind of things, have they discouraged mushers from from racing in the Iditarod?

Sass: Yeah, I think that definitely discourages people. I mean, it’s never a good thing when your peers are accused of doping their dogs and deny it and it turns into a big debacle. That’s never a good thing. But I think, like anything, we’re all going to get through it. I think that they’re making the positive changes that need to be made. I think that there’s still lots of work to do but I think we’re going to get through it, as a sport and as a profession. I think that all of us just want what’s best for the dogs. And I think that’s — we’re on the way to doing that in Iditarod. I think we all just as individuals have to support our sport and stand behind each other and be as positive as we can about the whole thing, because there’s a lot of naysayers out there that we have to make sure that we don’t give a give a window in.

Grove: OK, well, last question. I don’t want to put you on the spot too much, but who do you think’s going to win the Iditarod this year?

Sass: Oh man, you know, I don’t know. I think that it’s going to be a fun race to watch. I think the person who runs their own race is going to win the race, and there’s a lot of guys out there that are capable of doing that, you know, Nick Pettit Jesse Holmes, Joar (Leifseth Ulsom) obviously in the mix. I mean, there’s there’s so many I can’t even start mentioning the names that could be in the top spot, you know. Yeah, we’ll see what happens, but I have my money on one of those young guns, any of those guys are going to be, are going to be fighting for that spot. But I think the guy who runs his own dog team is going to, it’s going to end up prevailing. To be clear, that’s who I would have my money on! But I don’t have enough money to be putting money on dog races.

Grove: Yeah me neither, me neither. Well, Brent. Thanks for being here. I appreciate talking to you, man.

Sass: Yep. No problem. No problem at all.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: France’s Thierry Corbarieu wins Yukon Arctic Ultra race in northwestern Canada, CBC News

Finland: Ice fishing World Championships latest in Finnish series of odd sports events, Yle News

Norway: Swedish musher wins Finnmarksløpet, The Independent Barents Observer

United States: Alaska’s Brent Sass wins Yukon Quest sled dog race, CBC News

Casey Grove, Alaska Public Media

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