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Mackey leading Iditarod, headed toward finish line

KOYUK, Alaska &

It looks like it's Lance Mackey's race to lose.

Mackey on Monday was leading the 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and closing in on the finish line in Nome, perhaps reaching the end of the Iditarod trail sometime today.

"He's going to be tough to beat," defending champion Jeff King said Monday afternoon after arriving in Koyuk, an Eskimo village of 350 people on Alaska's western coastline.

King, a four-time winner, mushed about 60 miles &

one of his shorter runs this Iditarod &

along the coast and across the frozen Bering Sea to reach the checkpoint less than 200 miles from the race finish in Nome.

"I don't think I'm going to win this one if something doesn't happen to Lance," the Denali Park musher said after bedding down his dogs next to the team of another four-time winner, Martin Buser, who was third into Koyuk.

Mackey, 36, of Fairbanks, is trying to become the first musher to win both the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race and the 1,100 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in the same year. The distance is equivalent to driving a dog team from New York City to Miami. Mackey got one week off between the end of the Quest and the start of the Iditarod.

Mackey, who is running in his sixth Iditarod, also is trying to join his father, Dick Mackey, and brother, Rick, as Iditarod champions. He arrived in Koyuk about 6 hours ahead of King and more than 4 hours ahead of Buser. If either of them won, they would join Rick Swenson as the race's only five-time winners. Swenson, who is running his 31st Iditarod, last won in 1991. He was in 29th position Monday.

Dick Mackey beat Swenson for the win in 1978 in the closest finish in Iditarod history. He crossed the finish line — second ahead of Swenson. Rick Mackey won in 1983. Each of the Mackeys won the race once.

Lance Mackey, coming off his third consecutive win in the Quest, is wearing bib No. 13 in the Iditarod, the same number that his father and brother wore when they became champions.

At the start of the race, King described his team as "fast." On Monday, with about 171 miles to go before the finish line in Nome, he said his team was "not all that brisk but steady."

King, 51, said for him at this stage of his mushing career, it's first place or nothing. King won the race in 1993, 1996, 1998 and last year.

"I have not reached my goals with this team in the race," King said.

Zack Steer, who was fourth into Koyuk, pulling in behind Paul Gebhardt and Buser, said he didn't expect to be having such a great run.

"If someone told me I would be in the top five this late in the race, I would have told them they were a liar," Steer said as he tossed frozen salmon steaks to his dogs. "This is beyond my original expectations."

Steer is racing in only his fourth Iditarod. His best finish was 14th in 2000.

Also on Monday, Canadian musher Karen Ramstead scratched from the race at the Grayling checkpoint after one of her dogs died Sunday night. A necropsy will be conducted in an attempt to determine the cause of the dog's death, officials said.

Eighty-two teams started the race in Willow. Twenty have scratched.