Friday, June 6, 2003 | 11:07 a.m.
On your marks.
It's not the typical opening to a competition.
Then again, there was nothing typical about this event: a 12-minute race to quaff as many hot dogs -- buns and all -- as possible at the Nathan's Famous Las Vegas Hot Dog Eating Contest at New York-New York's Brooklyn Bridge.
Thursday's event was the western regional finals. The contest culminates with the 88th annual International Hot Dog Eating Championship, scheduled for July 4 in Coney Island, N.Y.
To start the event, 11 contestants, ranging in age from the early 20s to 59 and in weight from 130 to 260-plus pounds, lined up at a long table.
In front of them were bottles of ketchup, mustard and two glasses of water -- and a plate stacked three hot dogs across and three hot dogs high.
For many competitors, the event wasn't about winning as much as getting a free meal.
But a few were taking the contest a bit more seriously. Dave "Mo Ribs" Molesky, from Cleveland, was one of those.
Thursday's competition marked the fourth straight event in which he has competed. He won the contest in 2000.
Molesky said he was mindful of the rising Las Vegas temperature. He even opted to hold off until just before the contest began at 2 p.m. to venture outside.
"This heat's a little rough on us nonresidents," the 49-year-old said between puffs on a cigarette.
Regardless of the heat, Molesky was clearly a favorite from the beginning, as was John "Splendid Splinter" Sanchez, an artist from Henderson.
"My average meal for a hot dog is six," Sanchez said. "It's a thing that runs in my family. My father loves 'em and I love 'em."
At 6-foot-3, 165 pounds, however, Sanchez doesn't look the part of a champion eater.
Neither does reigning champion Rich LeFevre, who, at 5-foot-7, weighing 130 pounds, is easily the smallest of the contestants.
The slim physique is actually an advantage when it comes to competitive eating, Sanchez said.
"Because the stomach has room to expand without the fat" getting in the way, he said.
There must be something to it, though, because for the second straight year, LeFevre won, easily out-chowing the competition.
LeFevre virtually inhaled 20 hot dogs, a feat that matches the Las Vegas record he set last year in his first competitive eating competition.
LeFevre's closest competition came from fellow Henderson resident Frank Laskowitz, who managed to choke down 14 dogs for a second-place finish.
Sanchez and Molesky tied for third, scarfing eight dogs apiece.
After the competition, a disappointed LeFevre critiqued his accomplishment.
"I'm going to have to improve my performance," he said. "I'm not happy with 20 at all. I just didn't want to do anything to jeopardize my winning. I didn't want to take any chances."
In the best of circumstances LeFevre said he could put away 30 dogs in 12 minutes. But he'll need to eat much better at the international finals.
Last year LeFevre managed to beat his Las Vegas record by four hot dogs -- good enough for a fourth-place finish in New York.
Japanese phenom Takeru Kobayashi, however, shattered all records -- and hopes of the other contestants -- by eating 50.5 hot dogs in the 12-minute time limit.
LeFevre acknowledges competing for the title of World Hot Dog Eating Champion is beyond even his eating capacity. But he would like to at least place third this year.
In the meantime, he and his wife, Carlene, were planning a weekend trip to Phoenix for her to compete in that city's Hot Dog Eating Championship.
"I'd better win," Carlene joked, "or Rich will kill me."