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Martin Buser leading Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race

March 8, 2011 |  1:35 pm

An Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race musher crosses the taiga forest between the Skwentna and Finger Lake checkpoints Monday with Mount Foraker, left, and Denali in the background.

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race had a new leader Tuesday morning, with Martin Buser the first musher to reach the Nikolai checkpoint.

Four minutes behind Buser was Robert Bundtzen, with Hugh Neff arriving one minute after that. Ray Redington Jr. checked in fourth, and Lance Mackey arrived fifth, 35 minutes after Buser.

Mackey, the defending and four-time consecutive champion, has dropped four of his 16-dog team, including the 2010 Golden Harness winner, Maple, who led Mackey's team to victory last year.

"I'm not going to get discouraged at this point, but it doesn’t look too promising at this time," Mackey told the Anchorage Daily News as he piled straw among his team at the Nikolai checkpoint, where he dropped three of his dogs -- Jester, Pimp (who Mackey described as "one of my veteran superstars") and Lippy -- that he said weren't pulling or eating well and seemed sore.

"They're not right, and I'm not one to jeopardize the future of my dogs just for my own personal satisfaction," he said.

Mackey definitely isn't throwing in the towel, though.

"Last year at this time, I kind of had some symptoms and issues too, and it turned out all right," said the 40-year-old musher from Fairbanks, Alaska.

"I'm not taking myself out of it yet. We're just going to kind of put ourselves in defense mode and try to get these 12 dogs to Nome as healthy and happy as possible," he said. "If it puts me there first, great, if it put me there 21st, well, that's the way it is, right?"

"You can't win them all. ... I'm damn sure going to try, but not at the expense of my team," he added.

-- Kelly Burgess
twitter.com/latimesoutposts

Photo: An Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race musher crosses the taiga forest between the Skwentna and Finger Lake checkpoints on Monday. Credit: Bob Hallinen / Anchorage Daily News / Associated Press

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