LACONIA — Two-time Laconia World Championship Sled Dog Derby winner Claude Bellerive of Charette, Quebec, jumped out to the first day lead in the 85th annual derby Friday afternoon.
Bellerive held a 1 minute, 10 second lead over Vermont musher Steve Long over the 15-mile, freshly groomed course, posting a time of 53:39 while Long finished with a time of 54:49.
The competition came in the "unlimited" division of the derby, where mushers are allowed to harness as many dogs as they wish. Times added up over three runs will determine the champion. Start time is 1 p.m. on Saturday and 1:30 on Sunday.
'"It was a good course,'' said Bellerive, who was runner-up in last year's race and won back-to-back titles in 2007-08.
In third place was Jack Trottier, another musher from Quebec. with a time of 55:03, just a minute and 24 seconds behind the leader and only four seconds ahead of defending champion Justin Fortier of St. Raymond, Quebec.
Fortier, who was only 20 when he became the youngest musher to ever win the derby last year, beat out Bellerive by overcoming a three-minute deficit on the final day of the derby.
In fifth place is first-time derby racer Rejean Therrien of Quebec, with a time of 56 minutes even. Therrien, who has been racing sled dogs for 35 years, said that the course was good but that he lost several minutes when his 16-dog team of husky-pointer crosses became tangled.
''I'm was a little disappointed but the team ran well and I think I can make it up. I'm just a little over two minutes behind and we've got two days to catch up,'' said Therrien.
Brittany Colbath of Gilford is in sixth place with a time of 57:17 and two-time champion Keith Bryar Jr. of Moultonborough trails her by seven seconds.
Bryar said he was generally pleased with his run and has added several new dogs to his veteran team this year. ''Times should be better the next two days and I'm just hoping for a top five finish this year,'' says Bryar, who won the derby in 2002 and 2011.
There is a close race in the six-dog class with the top six finishers Friday just 44 seconds apart. Jessica, Doherty of Palmero, N.Y, leads with a time of 19:48. Angie Carter of Penacook is just seven seconds back and Jocelyn Bradbury of Portland, Maine, is third trailing by 22 seconds.
Kathy Rivest of Charette, Quebec is fourth with a time of 20:27, followed by defending champion Melanie Bellerive of Quebec three seconds back and Fran Plaisted of Vermont just two seconds behind her.
Today the six-dog race would begin at 9:30 a.m., the three-dog race will begin at noon, and the second leg of the unlimited race will begin at 1 p.m.
Sunday's six-dog race begins a 9:30 a.m., the three-dog race starts at noon, a special one-dog race for juniors begins at 12:30 and the final run of the unlimited race is at 1:30 to 1:45 p.m.
Governor Maggie Hassan is expected to participate in the festivities leading up to the start of Sunday's unlimited-class race.
The start/finish line is located at the intersection of Old North Main Street and Parade Road, directly across the street from the former State School property.