WHITEHORSE, Yukon — Everybody loves a comeback tale.
All of the mushers who sign up for the Yukon Quest 1,000-Mile International Sled Dog Race do so for different reasons. They all love the sport, but their passion for mushing and their motivation to compete in the world’s toughest sled dog race is always unique to them as individuals.
Two former Quest champions who didn’t compete in the 2018 race — Hans Gatt and Brent Sass — are among the 30 mushers that will begin the journey from Whitehorse, Yukon, to Fairbanks at 10 a.m. AKST Saturday.
For Sass, a Eureka resident who won the race in 2015, finished second in 2016 and scratched in 2017, he was eager to get back after missing out on the action a year ago.
“I just missed the Quest,” Sass said Thursday after drawing bib No. 3 at the Start and Draw Banquet held at the Yukon Convention Centre in Whitehorse. “I just missed the trail and traveling, and taking these dogs over the trail.
“And to see all the people out on the trail, all the people at the hospitality stops. That’s something I missed from last year.”
Gatt’s return has a few more layers. The 60-year-old from Whitehorse became the first musher to win three consecutive Quest titles when he finished first each year from 2002-04.
He captured another title in 2010, though he hasn’t been back to the Quest since 2011, when he scratched in Central after suffering second-degree frostbite on both hands after falling into overflow 2 miles before Birch Creek.
He’s in the field this year after he allowed outside sources to fuel his comeback.
“Basically, it was an accident,” Gatt said when asked why he decided to return to the race after a seven-year absence. “I got approached by a film crew in Europe in June (who said) they wanted to do a documentary. They kind of talked me into it, so I signed up and then they backed out. So now here I am, running the race.”
After the documentary fell through, Gatt said multiple Whitehorse-area sponsors stepped up to help fund his way to Fairbanks. Although he completed the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 2014 and 2017, he said only a few of those dogs will be a part of his team in this year’s Quest.
“I haven’t raced much,” the four-time champion said before he drew bib No. 2 at Thursday’s banquet. “I raced the Iditarod twice since my last Yukon Quest. I do have a few dogs on my team which have raced a 1,000-mile race, but none of them have raced the Quest. It’s a young team, but I don’t think it makes a difference at all.”
Sass is in a similar boat, with a young team of his own. He was only away from the Quest for a year, but he said just three of the 14 dogs on this year’s team have taken part in the race before. The former Quest champion was able to give his team a test run at the Copper Basin 300 in the middle of January, and the dogs responded well with a second-place finish behind Nicolas Petit’s team from Girdwood.
“They’re super-awesome dogs and I’ve raised them all since they were puppies,” Sass said with a big smile on his face. “We got a little bit of a test at the Copper Basin, and they did really well. At this point, I think they’re going to be pretty focused and really excited.”
Both mushers will be in prime position for the start of this year’s race, having selected top-three bib numbers behind No. 1 Denis Tremblay, of Quebec, Canada. Sass described drawing No. 3 as “epic” and added “being No. 3 is perfect.”
Gatt said he’s happy he won’t have to deal with passing many teams during the opening 100-mile stretch to Braeburn, which is the first checkpoint after teams leave Whitehorse.
They’ll face some more talent at the front of the pack, as 2017 champion and last year’s second-place finisher, Matt Hall, selected bib No. 7. Gatt said having former champions around him is an aspect of the race he’s looking forward to.
“It’s actually nice to have dog teams like that around you because you know there’s not going to be any BS,” he said.
Although neither Gatt nor Sass was eager to make predictions about how he would fare, Sass said he’s most concerned about running his race and he doesn’t plan on paying attention to other teams any time soon.
“My goal this year is to not pay attention to any of the competition,” he said. “As we get closer to the finish line, maybe we’ll start looking around and seeing what we’re into. But I’m really working on just running the dog team I have, because they’re young. I will say that we’re going to be competitive.”
Contact News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal at 459-7530. Follow him for updates from the Yukon Quest trail on Twitter: @FDNMQuest.