Q&A: Defending Iditarod champ Brent Sass on the effect of success, future ambitions and his connection to his dogs
Mar. 4—Eureka musher Brent Sass returns to the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race with an eye toward defending his 2022 championship. He's one of two past champions entered in a field of 33 mushers.
We caught up with Sass on the eve of the ceremonial start in downtown Anchorage to talk about how last year's success has affected his mindset, and the moments he's looking forward to most as the 2023 Iditarod gets underway.
ADN: Tell me a little bit about how becoming an Iditarod champion has changed your life.
Sass: I think more than anything, it's just given me more confidence in what I'm doing. The whole season, I just felt like it was sort of verified that my plan, my schedule, my breeding program, everything throughout the last 15 years of doing this, you know, works. And so it gave me a lot more confidence going into this season.
A little more sponsorship. It definitely helped with my Arctic tours. I do expeditions up in the Arctic every year, and I think that the notoriety from the Iditarod win definitely helped me get a few more clients up there, which is great.
I think more than anything, it's just confidence. And that kind of helps with every part of everything.
ADN: How has winning Iditarod affected your ambitions? I'm sure it's been a goal for so many years. Now that you've arrived at it, how does that change things looking forward beyond that?
Sass: It's fired me up (to) go back and win another one, just because the dog team is nearly the same and I feel like the energy is still there. And I still have all the passion and drive for it.
But it has also, if I'm honest, it made me think about, OK, what's next? I'm definitely going to be running Iditarod for many years to come, but there's other things to do too. So, it made me start thinking, because I did check that off the list. My goal back when I first started running dogs, I was like, I want to win the Yukon Quest and I want to win the Iditarod. And checking both those off the list is a big check.
It's opened my eyes to maybe other things I want to do down the line. But more than anything, right now in the present, it's fired me up about this race and future races.
[Meet the mushers of the 2023 Iditarod]
ADN: You're a guy who lives a pretty remote lifestyle. Do you enjoy the fanfare that comes with the start of the Iditarod, and the attention?
Sass: I do enjoy this part of it, just because I know how important it is. The fans, the supporters, the race sponsors, everybody around this race, they make it happen. They make it possible for us. So as much as I would rather be living out in the middle of the Bush and all by myself with my dogs, there's time for this too ...
That meet-and-greet last night was amazing. I mean, there were people from all over the world that are coming. And just the amount of support they're showing for Iditarod, and for us as mushers, is just essential to the sport and to the race.
ADN: There's been a lot of talk this season about how expensive it is to maintain a musher's lifestyle. Why is it worth it for you?
Sass: The connection with the dogs. All of the dogs in the team, I have bred, raised and trained them their entire life. And that bond and connection that you build with them, that's what fires me up every day. These races are just proving grounds. You get to go out and spend 10 days — or hopefully less than that — eight days, nine days with them, just showing what we got.
But it is the connection and the camaraderie I gain with these dogs that really drives me every day to keep coming back. And forget about all the money you turn into dog poop.
ADN: Tell me about this year's race team.
Sass: It's real similar. There's still 15 in the truck, and I haven't made my final, final decision. (Iditarod mushers are allowed to start with a maximum of 14 dogs.) But I think it'll be 11 from last year's team. I did leave Morello, one of my Golden Harness winners from last year. She's at home. She's turning 9, and I just decided that these young guns I got are just going to be a little bit more ambitious about being out there.
But it's a real solid team. Like I said, the core is all from last year. And with the ones that I added, there's a couple young ones that just showed they had what it takes. And other ones that were just ones that were my 15th, 16th dog the last couple years. And they just stepped it up and beat out some of the ones that were getting a little bit older. So, I'm really excited about the team.
ADN: So you'll have to disappoint some of them?
Sass: Yeah, there's one in there that's going to have to go home, so I think it'll be a sad moment for them. But you know, this whole experience of coming down here, and being on the truck, and being around for the ceremonial, and being around for all that, is good experience for these dogs even if they don't get to go. It'll probably be a 2-year-old that goes home, and they'll have this under their belt for next year when they make the team.
ADN: You are one of just a couple past champions entered in the race this year. How competitive do you think this race will be?
Sass: I think it's going to be really competitive. Every year, somebody, or multiple people, shine. They come through. Pete Kaiser's the other past champion. He won in '19, so that's not far back and he's got a solid team. There's going to be tons of competition. You sometimes don't know who they are in the beginning. Jessie Holmes got third last year. Dan Kaduce is back, was fourth last year. Jessie has shown a lot of maturity over the last few years, and I feel like he's coming on strong and he's got the target on my back. Which is great.
[The reintroduction of Jason Mackey, veteran Iditarod musher and brother of Lance]
ADN: Other than the competition and the race, is there a moment that you look forward to the most out on the trail?
Sass: I enjoy the entire trail for the most part. It's really all the moments with my dogs. But really that start. When they say go at the start line, that's when all this is behind us and basically the whole season is basically behind you ...
Now I get to focus on the 14 dogs in front of me and the trail and obstacles ahead, and that's where we're best. So I do think maybe when they say go, that's probably my most favorite moment.
The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.