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!

17 Responses

  • Nicely put Macgellan!! Allen mentioned at the banquet "this is a rebuilding year" so with some big players stepping down, it's now a learning curve….no one can tell how steep the curve will be…but this season is definitely a glimpse into the near future of SPK! I think we can all agree we like what we see!! As for the dogs….some years ago before I became a die hard SPK Fan, I was gearing up for the Iditarod and bumped into an interview with Aliy….she encouraged the audience to "root for a dog"…and went on about how the dogs are the stars, not the mushers. That struck me as intriguing…and it lead me to the SPK Dog Log where I fell in love with all the SPK dogs!! You are right…it is all about the dogs, and I am awestruck at their abilities….they can do amazing things with the right training and encouragement! SPK has a great combination and it makes me smile thinking of Allen smiling at his Team on his way down the trail…new beginnings look very bright for SPK…..something we can all be excited about!! Go SPK!!

  • As a novice to distance dog sled racing I really welcome these kind of insights into the "bigger" picture. Thanks, and I sure think Allen and team are doing great. Mush on SPK.

  • Thanks., Great information there. Am so glad to hear how well you hey are doing!
    SPK is the best!
    Thanks again!
    "The Florida Girl"

  • Again Macgellen you have put things into proper perspective. You'r insite is very thought provoking. I just can see Allen mushing with a smile on his face! Allen and Aily are the best trainers ever. The four legged family members are so fortunate and loved by all.

  • This is a terrific post Macgellan – it lays out the realities of dog careers so well. I'm always proud to cheer on Aliy, Allen, handlers running R&B teams and all the dogs at SP Kennel during the races because it is a class operation of people who care for the dogs and love the sport. I don't cheer for them because they happen to have a spell of good years with top placings, that's just an added bonus. I'd be just as fatigued from tracker refresh frenzy and late nights staring at blips on the screen if they were in the red lantern position. Go Black Team!

  • Ditto to all above sentiments, and yes, Macgellan, you are wise and true.

    But this crop of new big race dogs seems bred to win or at least compete strenuously. Breeding or class will tell.

    Even the 2 year-olds behind them darn near pulled off a win in the YQ300, so maybe that had something to do with Allen's smile, too!!!

    The 4-legged athletes on the Black Team in the YQ1000 are beautiful and exciting and just coming into their own!!! Woof, woof, woof!!!

  • Well put!
    And agreement with the sentiments above.

    Win or Red Lantern, I am unashamedly, unabashedly, and completely an SPK fan.

    With that said, even if it's just a couple miles at a time….have you noticed that Allen's pups are gaining on Brent during runs. I know it might not hold to the end and anything can happen. But, I do know this, Allen knows how to take care of his teammates!!! And his teammates have some amazing parents.


  • Thank you Mac for the informative article.
    As an SPK fan, of course I'd love to see a first place finish for both Aliy and Allen. Knowing how young the dogs are didn't stop my hope of their winning their respective races. I watched Aliy's tracker and hoped she catch the leader for the win. I remember thinking as she took 2nd, wow she came pretty close for such a young team. I wondered if deep down if she could pull off a win, would she go for it. How competitive is she, I wondered.
    Now here comes Allen in the mix with young dogs. I wondered if he would go for it? Is it possible for him to win?
    I remember thinking how I wish I could pick your brain to see what you thought, to see what you tbought of these run/rest charts. So thank you for shedding some light on the situation. I will still hope that Allen can pull it off, but at least now I know why in this building hear I should be stoked that the dogs are doing as well as they are doing.

  • By the topos, that has to be some of the most brutal of trail passings, almost from start to finish. SPK updates are more than awesome. Thank you all, from new Mexico.

  • Thanks Macgellan. I was thrilled that Aily took 2nd in the YQ300 with a young team and like you said, Allen's current position with his young team is fantastic. I love the back stories SP Kennel gives us. The life you live is certainly more than your placement at the end. Mush on!

  • I love seeing the next generation doing so well. And I don't think Allen has dropped a dog yet. Love this blog and I enjoy reading comments from those of you have been SPK fans for several years. I also enjoy your insight and thoughtful updates, Mac.

  • Not to take away from your point, Mac, but wasn't Mismo on Aliy's team last year? I thought we saw a video of Mismo and Mac running into the checkpoint side by side, Mac having helped with his learning process. I remember thinking of this YQ team, he would be one of the few who could lend some real calm and strength to a very young team when I looked at the roster.

    I think they are amazing. I am amazed at what they can do for the people they love.

  • Great article. You are spot on Macgellan! Give Mac a hug for me when
    you see him! He's a tough guy. The dogs are really doing amazing!
    Go SPK!!!

  • Thank you so much for this post. It puts so much in perspective for me and will add to my knowledge as well as my enjoyment of the sport.
    After digesting your article, I, too, am amazed how well the Black Team has performed so far in this race. I credit SP Kennel breeding, handling, caring and love of the dogs for that. I'm a real fan of SP Kennel…that's for sure!

    I will continue to follow the YQ and Iditarod with your article in mind. Thank you.

  • Ditto to all above comments. Yes the future is very bright for Allen, Aliy, and all the fabulous dogs of SPK. Coming in second is a great feat with young teams Especially when you know the emphasis is totally on the dogs having a positive experience. Go SPK.

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