By Steve Quinn
JUNEAU, Alaska (Reuters) - Three-time Iditarod sled-dog racing champion Dallas Seavey became the first to reach the halfway point of the near 1,000-mile race on Wednesday.
Seavey, winner in three of the last four years and looking for his third successive title, pulled in as the leader into the old mining town of Cripple, considered by race organizers to be the official midway checkpoint.
"He is working really hard out there," said Mitch Seavey, the father of Dallas and winner in 2004 and 2013. "Dallas is sick and he is not his usual happy self, instead he has this grim determination. He is dangerous."
Noah Burmeister, racing for the first time since 2008, has been challenging perennial favorites and trailed Dallas Seavey by 20 miles heading into Cripple.
Former champions Robert Sorlie, John Baker, Lance Mackey and Jeff King were among six others trailing Seavey.
The race commemorates a 1925 rescue mission that carried diphtheria serum by sled-dog relay to the coastal community of Nome, which is also Burmeister's hometown
Some 85 mushers and their dogs set off on Sunday from the town of Willow, about a 90-mile drive from Anchorage, on a journey northwest across the Alaskan tundra that the fastest team will likely complete in under 10 days.
Only four have withdrawn from the race. While most of competitors are from Alaska, this year's race drew entrants from as far away as Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
This year's winner will receive $70,000 and a new truck, while other top finishers will take home cash prizes from a race purse that exceeds $725,000.
Many mushers including the leaders have not completed a mandatory 24-hour rest coming into Cripple, so the leaderboard will be in flux until all contenders have completed this stop, plus two other mandatory rests that cannot be combined.
Even if Seavey does not record his third successive victory, he will still pocket $3,000 worth of gold nuggets for being the first to arrive in Cripple.
(Reporting by Steve Quinn; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Greg Stutchbury)