Although the number of sled dog teams is down this year to 21, and the reigning champion is not returning, Stephen Reynolds thinks these factors will add up to a very interesting Yukon Quest 1,000-Mile International Sled Dog Race.

The manager of the Canadian half of the “toughest sled dog race in the world,” says Hans Gatt’s decision to run the Iditarod instead, along with the absence of last year’s second-place finisher Zack Steer, will allow for another musher’s strategy to win it all.

“It was Hans’ strategy to be leading at the half and hold it,” says Reynolds. Now it is wide open and each musher can run their own race for the $30,000 US top prize. The next 14 racers will share $95,000 US.

And, looking at the line up for this year, Reynolds can’t believe he has to call some of them “Rookies”.

“Bruce Langmaid is the Can-Am 250 reigning champion, but he’s a rookie in the Quest.

“Blake Freking is the reigning champ of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon … but he’s a rookie to us.

Reynolds ponders the entire field and then opines. “I don’t see any one team pulling away.”

But he will leave the speculation to others; he is too busy getting ready for the start on Sunday at 1 p.m. from First Avenue and Main Street.

One of his concerns this year is three stretches of trail that runs through fire-ravaged forests between the start and Dawson City. There has been 60 human days of work spent clearing, but the weight of snow on root-damaged trees could add an unwelcome surprise, toppling a tree onto the trail.

As for the weather, Reynolds begs not to be quoted: “The typical Yukon weather is holding out so far, but mushers never have enough snow.

“Just so long as it’s packed down.”

Then Reynolds has to be concerned with getting enough volunteers: “We need office people before and after the race, we always need security people and I need people I can call at midnight if a checkpoint person doesn’t show up.”

He is also on an ongoing search for sponsors. The Whitehorse branch of RBC

Royal Bank recently joined at the $4,000 level along with the Canadian Rangers and the Whitehorse Star.

And, now that Sorel has found a home with Columbia Sportswear Company, it is still a sponsor at $25,000.

As the Yukon Quest gains more and more media awareness and establishes a reputation for stability, Reynolds believes there will be more corporate sponsorships from across North America.

“But I don’t know if it will be a title sponsor like Fulda,” he says.

Yukon Quest action begins Friday night at 5:30 with a banquet. Each ticket is $50 and may still be available at the door of the High Country Inn and Yukon Convention Centre.

On Sunday, the teams begin assembling at 11:00 for the start at 1:00. And, that night at 8:00, the Yukon Quest 300 begins. It is a qualifying race for next year.

As every year, Reynolds asks that spectators leave their own pets at home. There will already be too much excitement.