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Dogs As Varied As Racers In New England

November 7, 1987

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (AP) _ Mush, you coon hounds? On Big Red? In New England?

Enthusiasts say sled dog racing is growing in popularity in New England, but unlike the Yukon or Alaska the animals in harness here can be Irish setters as well as the more traditional malamutes and huskies.

″We get all kinds of dogs racing, from coon hounds to retrievers and just Heinz-57-variety mutts,″ said Barry LaCasse of the 150-member New England Sled Dog Association, which has been running races since 1932.

″There’s a guy up in northern Maine who runs a hunting lodge and has had considerable success with his bear hounds,″ LaCasse said. ″He says it helps keep them in shape over the winter. And a fellow in Laconia, N.H., has a matched set of 11 Irish setters. He’s done pretty well, too.″

The racers are as varied as the dogs, said the Hubbardston salesman, who maintains 46 Siberian huskies. The association’s members include IBM executives, computer programmers, teachers and a number of veterinarians.

″It’s a real family thing,″ he said. ″Sled dog racing is the one sport where women can compete on an even footing with men, and there are a number of limited divisions for juniors ranging down to one-dog teams for the 6- and 7- year-olds.″

A race can be found somewhere in the six New England states every weekend from November through March, he said. Most are small, local competitions, but the association also sponsors a regional race circuit with stops that include Rangeley and Greenville, Maine; Stowe and Newport, Vt., and Laconia, N.H.

The circuit this year will return to Gardner, Mass., after an absence of eight years. That race, which attracted up to 20,000 spectators during the 17 years it was run, fell victim to municipal cost-cutting and a series of winters with little snow, LaCasse said.

Gardner’s race is being revived by local banks and the Heritage State Park. For the next two weekends volunteers will be clearing brush and overhanging limbs from the 11 1/2 -mile-course that stretches from a community college campus across a golf course and into the woods, he said.

″It was a lot of fun,″ Henry Dernalowicz said of the races he started in Gardner, where he retired as city recreation director.

″We’d have a Mushers Ball and all the service clubs would turn out, and we didn’t care if it didn’t snow that weekend because we used to have something going every weekend whether it was motorcycles racing on the ice, or snowmobiles or dogs,″ he said. ″Anything to get people out, because the winters are too long.″

The fickle New England weather and condominium construction are the twin nemesis of the sport.

″It’s getting very difficult to find a place even up in Northern New England where there is enough open space to run the dogs,″ LaCasse said. ″And you have to have snow.″

″But it could be a lot of work if it did snow,″ Dernalowicz recalled. ″These dogs aren’t like something out of Sgt. Preston. No sir, they don’t run in snow up to their necks. We had to pack it down for them and some years we would have a devil of a time getting it just right.″