As I write this, the SP Kennel Black team is out of Eagle and cruising down the trail to Dawson, holding steady in second position about 20 miles behind leader Brent Sass. This is a remarkable accomplishment. Here's why I say that:
Let's face it, we've all become a bit spoiled over the past few years cheering for SPK with dogs like Quito, Olivia, Chica, Nacho and their sibling superstars in the team. Those dogs have had amazing careers racing for SPK, but now they are all either retired or running shorter races to teach the youngsters their craft.
Much like college sports, top sled dog teams often change rosters almost completely over a four year span. When you get a group of superstars at their peak all in one "class" you let them compete together as long as you can. When their time on the roster comes to an end, you can find yourself almost starting over with a new class. That's pretty much the case now at SP Kennel.
Here's something to think about: Of the 14 dogs on the SPK Black Team right now, 6 dogs (Mismo, Chipper, Kodiak, Dutch, Felix and Commando) have no YQ1000 experience at all. The only 1,000 mile experience they have has been running with Allen once (twice for Mismo and Felix) on the Iditarod "puppy team." Running on a "puppy team" is all about having fun, gaining experience and getting to the finish line. There is no "race pressure" on them, it's all just a casual series of eat-sleep-run days on the trail.
With these youngsters -- SPK's "next generation" -- racing in the YQ1000, Allen must walk a fine line. He must push them to be competitive, but not so hard that they get too tired, lose confidence or spoil their positive experience. Allen truly excels at this. Being so close to the lead 400 miles into the race really shows that they have "the right stuff" to become future champions. Allen must be pleased and very proud of them.
I would be shocked -- delighted, of course, but shocked -- if this young SPK team wins the YQ1000. They're up against teams which have vastly more experience in the race. A second place finish would be fantastic, even astonishing. I will be immensely impressed and thrilled for the future if they finish in the top five.
Speaking personally, the only thing about sled dog racing that ever bothers me is the focus that is placed on the mushers rather than the dogs. I'm the first to admit that dog breeding, training and care along with race strategy and skill are all reflective of a musher's outstanding ability. That said, it's the dogs who wins races, not their musher. I remember Lance Mackey speaking at the Iditarod finish in Nome after his fourth consecutive win: "Anyone could have won with my dogs."
In line with my comment above about four-year cycles for dog teams, it's worth noting that Lance's four consecutive wins (2007-2010) were followed by four years not finishing higher than 16th. Susan Butcher and other mushers have had similar four-year peak records. We all know that Aliy had three consecutive 2nd place Iditarod finishes with a superstar SPK team, after not having finished higher than 11th in her previous 11 races. After a great four-year class of dogs, you generally have to restart and rebuild with the next generation.
Please understand that I am not trying to take anything away from the mushers or their mastery of everything that is involved in sled dog racing. All I'm trying to do is place the spotlight on the next generation SPK team in this year's YQ1000 and emphasize both how well they are doing and what it may mean for the future. Knowing Allen, I can assure you he is racing with a smile on his face. No matter how the team places in this race, you can bet the future is bright... Go SPK!