March 12, 2015

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) Nearly 80 mushers are battling it out in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race for this year's top prize - $70,000 and a new pickup.

Those with knowledge of the 1,000-mile contest say 30 of the contestants legitimately could be the first to reach Alaska's western coast.

Here's a look at five of the top contenders, as compiled from interviews with leading mushers before the race started Monday in Fairbanks:

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DALLAS SEAVEY

It's easy to put Dallas Seavey at the top of the list of potential victors. After all, he's won two of the last three Iditarods.

The defending champion also won in 2012, when he became the event's youngest winner at age 25.

He says he has several younger, better dogs this year and believes they have a strong chance.

Dallas Seavey's top contenders: ''Myself, my Dad (musher Mitch Seavey) and Jeff King hold about 90 percent of the lottery tickets. There's still 10 percent out there. I don't know who's holding them.''

Dallas Seavey fact: The former Alaska high school wrestling champion spent a year at the U.S. Olympic Training Center before turning his attention back to dogs.

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ALIY ZIRKLE

This could be the year Aliy Zirkle finally takes the top prize. She finished second the last three years, losing twice to Dallas Seavey and once to Mitch Seavey.

Zirkle lost an opportunity last year, when she waited out a blizzard at the last checkpoint for nearly two hours and 40 minutes. She ended up losing to Dallas Seavey by two minutes, 22 seconds.

Her top 2015 contenders: ''There are a lot of them,'' she said, adding it's likely to be the same as the past few years - the Seaveys, herself and King. ''I think Jeff King is chomping at the bit like no one's business.''

Zirkle fact: The Manchester, New Hampshire, native lived in a tent on the Alaska Peninsula in 1990, counting birds for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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JEFF KING

The list of mushers with five Iditarod wins consists of one name - Rick Swenson - but several have four victories.

Jeff King was 25 miles from adding his fifth title last year until the sudden storm knocked him out of the race. ''I had a fabulous team and a magical ride, and I feel like right up until then, I had a very dominate event,'' he said.

King says he replaced some dogs and now has a faster team.

His top contenders: ''Ninety percent of the same teams that are in the top 10 (last) year is who I will pick to guess who will be there this year,'' he said.

King fact: When the Iditarod faced financial problems in 2010, he donated $50,000 to help increase the purse.

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MITCH SEAVEY

Mitch Seavey became the race's oldest winner in 2013 at age 53 - a year after his son Dallas became the youngest winner. The older Seavey also won in 2006.

He doesn't put much stock into who excels early on, since racers can be several hours behind and pull ahead. ''The guy that happens to be in the lead at the moment isn't necessarily the guy winning the race,'' Mitch Seavey said.

His top contenders: ''It may be kind of a cop-out (but) you look at last year's top finishes, and no one really has any more information than that.''

Mitch Seavey fact: He grew up dreaming of winning the race after listening to his father, Dan, help plan the first Iditarod in 1973.

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THE WILDCARD

If this is the year to crown a new champion, it might be Pete Kaiser.

Kaiser returned home to Bethel in January to win the Kuskokwim 300, a race run entirely on a river of the same name. Since the Iditarod was forced to a nearly all-river-ice trail this year, some feel he might have the edge.

On being singled out as someone to watch, Kaiser said: ''There's always pressure, but there's pressure regardless if people think you're going to do well or not. It's a thousand miles across Alaska, so there's pressure regardless of what your goal is.''

Kaiser fact: There's not a lot of money to be made in mushing. To help support his girlfriend and their son, he works construction in the summers.

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