LACONIA — In what may have been the most competitive field ever taking part in Laconia World Championship Sled Dog Derby, Claude Bellerive of Charette, Quebec, held on to win by just 27 seconds over the three-day race and became only the fifth person ever to win the derby three or more times.
Bellerive is no stranger to close finishes, having had previously won back-to-back titles in 2007-08 by margins of 10 seconds and eight seconds.
He jumped out to the first day-lead in the 85th annual derby Friday afternoon by taking a one minute, 10 second lead and then saw his challengers narrow the gap each day to the point where the top five racers finished only two minutes and 21 seconds apart.
Bellerive, who does not speak English, explained through his daughter, Melanie, who also races sled dogs and is the person who encouraged him to take up sled dog racing after his wife's death around 10 years ago, by saying that his team ran well and he encountered none of the major delays which affected him last year and in the 2011 races.
Bellerive started the weekend racing 16 Alaskan Husky-German Short-haired Pointer mix dogs and dropped to 12 dogs on Sunday when his 52:32 pace was the fourth best time of the day but proved enough to hold off his four challengers with an elapsed time of 2:41:10.
Jack Trottier, a Quebec musher, was third at the end of the first day, a minute and 24 seconds behind Bellerive, and posted the best time of Saturday, 54:15, picking up 44 seconds on Bellerive to narrow the gap to 40 seconds. He was 13 seconds better than Bellerive on Sunday with a 52:19 time which wasn't enough to close the gap and he finished with a time of 2:41:37.
Placing third was first-time derby racer Rejean Therrien of Quebec, who fell more than two minutes behind the pace in Friday's heat after his team became tangled. But he made up time steadily over the weekend, posting the second best time on Saturday and the third time on Sunday. The 37-year-veteran musher finished with a time of 2:42:04.
Vermont musher Steve Long fell from second after Friday's run, more than a minute back, to two minutes and eight seconds back by the end of Sunday's heat, finishing with a three-day total of 2:43:18.
Defending champion Justin Fortier of St. Raymond, Quebec, who had fallen nearly four minutes off the pace by the end of Saturday's heat, turned in the fastest heat of the weekend on Sunday with a blistering 50:59 pace to finish fifth with a time of 2:43:41.
Other finishers were 6. Hermel Bergeron, 2:49.19; 7. Doug Butler, 2:51. 24. 8. Keith Bryar, 2:52:24; 9. Brittany Colbath, 2:55:51; 10. Samuel LaForce, 3:03:32.
The other mushers who have won the Laconia Derby three or more times are Emile St. Goddard (1930-31-33); Dr. Charles Belford (1956-64-65-66) Keith Bryar (1960-62-63) and Dick Moulton (1968-71-73-75-76).
Winner of the six-dog class with a time of 57:25 was Jessica, Doherty of Palmero, N.Y, followed by Jocelyn Bradbury of Portland, Maine, with a time of 58:26. Angie Carter of Penacook was third with a time of 59:06, followed by Kathy Rivest of Charette, Quebec, 59:46; defending champion Melanie Bellerive of Quebec, 59:48 and Fran Plaisted of Vermont, 60:50.