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By Yereth Rosen
ANCHORAGE, Alaska, 9 (Reuters) - Four-time champion Martin Buser was leading the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Saturday, but his potentially record-breaking pace was slowed by high winds, blowing snow and a soft trail, race officials said.
The Swiss-born Buser reached Kaltag, an Athabascan Indian village that is the last checkpoint on the Yukon River, at 2:24 p.m. Alaska time.
The 1,000-mile endurance race, which has grown from a little-known contest into a sporting extravaganza, began in Anchorage a week ago and the winner is expected to cross the finish line in the Bering Sea town of Nome on Tuesday.
Behind Buser were 2012 runner-up Aliy Zirkle, 2004 champion Mitch Seavey and 13 other mushers who were on their way to Kaltag. The village of 186 people 346 miles from the finish line in Nome, is the last checkpoint before the Bering Sea coast.
Official standings had Zirkle in second place, about three hours behind Buser at the previous checkpoint, with Seavey a close third.
But Sebastian Schnuelle, an Iditarod veteran writing a blog for the race organizers, reported the race has become closer than the standings indicate. He reported that both Zirkle and Seavey were catching up to Buser, and that all three were expected to leave Kaltag at the same time Saturday evening.
This year's Iditarod has been characterized by higher-than-normal temperatures, overflow from melting streams and creeks and, in some places, a hard-packed and fast trail.
Sixty-six mushers started the race this year. Four have since dropped out. Among them is Newton Marshall of Jamaica, who is searching for a dog that went missing from his team.
The Iditarod race commemorates a 1925 rescue mission that carried diphtheria serum to Nome by sled-dog relay. The race's name derives from a local Athabascan term meaning "a far, distant place," according to race officials.
The winner will take home $50,400 and a new truck, part of a total $600,000 race purse. Winners usually reach Nome after about nine days of mushing. (Editing by Tim Gaynor and Todd Eastham)