Commentary

For the dogs

iditarod_dogs_in_style

Happy dogs at the Iditarod start/Frank Kovalchek, Wikimedia Commons

Commentary

Frank Turner is a 69-year-old musher from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada with a new idea – a radical new idea – to make life better for the dogs in Alaska’s two famous long-distance races, the upcoming Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and the just-completed Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.

Turner has suggested these 1,000-mile events provide a financial incentive for mushers to avoid the temptation to push dog teams to the edge of collapse for the glory of winning. Turner thinks the Iditarod and the Quest, which promote themselves as being all about the dogs, should put their money where they put their promotional promises.

The top prizes in these races should go not to the first finisher, he argues, but to the winner of what the Quest calls the “Vet’s Choice Award” or what the Iditarod calls the “Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian Award.”

“Switch the monetary value of first place and make this the reward for the Vets’ Choice,” he posted in a comment on craigmedred.news this week. “25k  ($25,000) for dog care would get people’s attention pretty fast , don’t you think?

“Maybe we have our priorities ass backwards (now) if it truly is about the dogs first.”

Twenty-five-thousand dollars is the prize for winning the Quest. The Iditarod winner takes home more than twice that.

A judged competition?

The obvious criticism against Turner’s idea is that a top prize contingent on the votes of veterinarians turns a clear-cut race into something more like figure-skating or gymnastics.

But this is not quite true.

“At the conclusion of each Yukon Quest, the Veterinary Team presents an award to the musher who demonstrates superior care of his or her sled dogs and still remains competitive during the race,” Margy Eastman, a former head vet for the Quest has written. “Many consider the ‘Vets’ Choice’ Award to be as prestigious as a top-finishing position.”

The key word there is “competitive.” The Seppala Award is even more specific. Iditarod says a musher has to finish in the top-20 to qualify for the prize.

So at worst, shifting the big prize money from the first-place finisher to the dog-care winner, would make these races into semi-judged events, and there would certainly be someone who didn’t care about the extra money. The prestige of “winning” would remain.

Still, there’s no avoiding the reality of how the shift in money might affect the thinking of mushers, and there have been Quest and Iditarod champions who’ve won both the races and the dog-care awards in the same year.

So mainly what Turner proposes is moving dog care from the simply “prestigious” category to the truly valuable category. This is not some wacky idea spawned by one of those animal right’s activists who think dogs are children with fur and four feet, either.

Turner is not some outsider unfamiliar with the workings of long-distance sled dog races. He is a knowledgeable veteran of the Quest, a race some consider tougher than the Iditarod because of the unique challenge of a trail with few checkpoints.

Turner won the Quest back in 1995. Over the years, he was 10 times among the top six finishers in the race. And he won the Vets’ Choice award in 2001.

Not just the Quest

“That’s a great idea,” Iditarod veteran Burt Bomhoff, a retired Iditarod musher and a former president of the Iditarod Board of Directors said of Turner’s suggestion. Bomhoff is man who has had concerns for some time about where “The Last Great Race,” as the Iditarod brands itself, is headed.

He and some other Iditarod old timers see Iditarod morphing from an adventure race into a sled-dog version of NASCAR.

Of course, Bomhoff might have some prejudice toward the Seppala Award. He won it in 1984 on his way to a best-ever finish in 12th in the Iditarod. He is among the lesser known of some big names on the list of Seppala winners.

Aily Zirkle from Two Rivers, a three-time Iditarod runner-up who has yet to win the race, has won the Seppala Award multiple times. Crotchety five-time champ Rick Swenson, who can sometimes be as gruff with veterinarians as with journalists, won it twice. Four-time champ Martin Buser from Big Lake, a friendlier presence on the trail,  and four-time champ Jeff King from Denali Park have both won it multiple times. So, too, fan-favorite DeeDee Jonrowe from Willow.

But there are a lot of lesser known Iditarod names on the list like Bomhoff: Frank Teasley from Wyoming, David Sawatsky from Healy and Minnesota, Bruce Lee from Denali Park, Sonny King from South Carolina, Lynda Plettner from Wasilla, Ed Iten from  Kotzebue and Nicolas Petit from Girdwood among them.

Former Iditarod champ Libby Riddles, now a Homer resident, won the award in 1985, the year she pushed through a Bering Sea coast storm to become the first woman to win the race. That victory elevated Iditarod from an obscure, arcane Alaska race to an international event.

Four-time Iditarod champ Lance Mackey from Fairbanks, the first musher to win the Quest and Iditarod in the same year, won the award in 2009. Mackey also once won the Vets’ Choice Award, something Turner remembers well.

“Lance Mackey won the Quest four times,” Turner recalls. “One of those times he was awarded the Vets’ Choice Award. I think this is the only time a first-place winner did also win the Vets’ Choice.With a breaking voice he held that trophy up in front of himself and said ‘this was the best trophy he had ever won.’ This is what long distance sled dog racing is about.”

The Quest victory this year went to Matt Hall from Two Rivers, who ran a carefully paced race and shadowed leaders Brent Sass from Eureka and Hugh Neff from Tok into Eagle, the first Quest checkpoint in the U.S. after the Whitehorse, Yukon start. Hall passed them on the way into Circle City and never looked back.

“A come from behind victory” is what the Alaska Dispatch News called it. 

What happened behind?

Behind Hall, Sass’s team collapsed, and he had to call for a rescue. Neff hung on to finish second. Sass was the 2015 champ and that year’s winner of the Vets’ Choice. Neff was the defending champ. His team this year put in a solid performance for the second half of the race despite Neff’s reputation for pushing too hard.

Neff’s Iditarod team quit on frozen Golovin Bay in the 2014, and Neff called for a rescue. It came late, and he was forced to spend 10 hours out on the ice with the dogs.

He later complained help should have been on the scene sooner. The complaint caused some others to raise the question of what motivates mushers.

“What has happened to responsible racing?” Iditarod.com reporter, sometimes musher and former Seppala Award winner Sebastian Schnuelle was moved to ask.

“When a storm moves in, it is every mushers choice, to continue to race hard or to switch to maybe a little more conservative strategies or even to think about survival….Different mushers made different choices. Some kept the pedal to metal, like Hugh Neff. Others played it safe and pulled over, be it either in Elim , or like Sonny Lindner at the Shelter Cabin at the bottom of Little McKinely. Martin Buser stayed in Golovin.

“Now keep in mind that Hugh has done this before, been stuck on Eagle Summit in the Quest and had a dog die and had to be rescued by snowmachine also. What has happened to responsible racing? Since when (do) snowmachines (get) mushers out of trouble? Is it not supposed to be the other way around? Dogs never break down; snowmachines do. But for that you have to leave enough fuel (in) the tank of your team, so they can continue when the going gets ugly.”

Dogs aren’t snowmachines

Five-time Iditarod champ Swenson once famously observed that dogs aren’t machines, adding in his Swensonesque way that if the only thing required to win was putting gas in the dogs anyone could become an Iditarod champ.

Swenson always kept enough fuel in the tank so he could continue, as Schnuelle put, “when the going gets ugly.” Swenson won his last race in 1991 after the going got incredibly ugly.

Blizzard conditions during the final run to Nome were so bad Swenson had to go to the front of the team himself at times to lead the dogs through the storm because they were having trouble following a windblown trail.

But the Iditarod was a different race in 1991 than it is today. Back then, mushers still talked about how “the racing doesn’t really start until you get to the (Bering Sea) coast.”

The racing today starts immediately at the restart. By the coast, there are usually only a handful of teams still in contention, and some of them are just sort of hanging on. Sass was the biggest of the hangers-on last year. He managed to make White Mountain – the penultimate checkpoint where teams serve a mandatory, 8-hour layover – in third place.

He ended up 20th after his team balked on leaving the checkpoint.

“He ran an ambitious race, and in the end, the schedule was a bit too ambitious for his dogs,” Schnuelle wrote at the time on Iditarod.com. “He did not voluntarily return to the checkpoint, the dogs refused to leave.

“It rubs me a bit the wrong way  reading comments about how Brent  ‘did things right by his dogs’ with returning to the checkpoint. I am sorry to having to point this out, but it was not Brent who made that choice, (it) was his dogs who did, When dogs refuse to go, a mistake was made. It does not make Brent a bad person, bad musher, but it also does not make him a hero.”

Sass ended up spending more than a day in White Mountain and it cost him more than $44,000, the difference between the $57,750 prize for third and $13,575 for 20th. He later admitted he’d pushed a little too far.

That push started before White Mountain, and one has to believe that Sass might have thought differently about it if he was vying for a $60,000 Seppala Award plus whatever prize money he might get for his finishing position.

The power of money cannot be ignored. In fact, there is at least one musher who has confessed the power of money probably kept him from winning. Ramey Smyth from Big Lake has nine times finished in the Iditarod top-10.

In the last 2000s, he put together a powerhouse of a team. From 2008 to 2012, they finished third, ninth, sixth, second and third. A lot of  other mushers thought Smyth could have won at least one of those races.

And Smyth has admitted they might be right, but he didn’t want to take the chance. He needed the prize money, and he rationalized that it wasn’t worth risking the chance of losing thousands of dollars, possibly tens of thousands of dollars, by pushing too hard in a quest for the glory of being called the champion.

Smyth is unique. He’s a guy a who grew up on the edge of civilization in Alaska and has always marched to the beat of his own drummer. He’s operated without big backing from sponsors who care more about basking in the glory of their association with a champion musher than anyone’s finishing position in Nome.

For some sponsors, it’s this simple: there is one Iditarod winner and a whole bunch of losers.

Some mushers think the same way. Turner’s idea could shift that thinking. It could make a whole lot more people think like Smyth has always thought:

How do I get to Nome with a team that still has fuel in the tank?

It’s not by accident that Smyth teams have eight times won the Nome Kennel Club prize for the fastest time from Safety, the last Iditarod checkpoint, to the finish line. His teams were fast at the end because he ran them conservatively for 1,000 miles.

And that, some would argue, is the way teams should be run.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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20 replies »

  1. Oh my. Let’s be gin clear here. This idea, maybe well intentioned, is just for the unknowing public eye as a touchy feely. It is totally subjective and COULD amount to voting for the prom King or Queen.
    When a dog driver uses their expertise to create a championship team, the result is black and white. If they win, it is clear they crossed the finish line ahead of all competitors. That musher will have exhibited an extraordinary 6th sense to compile the team, understand the team dynamics, be the team, and yet be team leader. Once that is mastered, we include mushers physical prowess, ability to function under extreme stress, make the correct decisions in strategy, correctly assess their teams ability (minus their own ego), have the ability to encounter extreme weather conditions and succeed. If that musher accomplishes these criteria among MANY other criteria. If they have put into place, all the puzzle pieces it takes, to actually WIN this major long distance race. I can guarantee the last thing in their mind is the vet award, nor should it be. Because they have run the perfect race above all others to be the first team across the finish line. That musher during the race will have their team tested for drugs and scrutinized by the veterinary staff like everyone else. If they win the vet award along with first place, icing on the cake.
    The vet award is wonderful. It recognizes a mushers responsibility and love of our canine brothers and sisters. It is subjective in value and has nothing to do with the first team to cross the finish line. In fact, if the vet award rivals first place in financial terms you will simply have two sets of competitors. One wants to win the race, one wants to win the vet award.
    The problem with the vet award being subjective is this. Its well…subjective. Slave to opinion. Not black and white. And can be influenced by nepotism, friendships, public opinion, bribery, showmanship…It in no way is even close to noteworthy, compared to being the championship team of the event. Its just a very nice and honorable award, like the sportsmanship award, halfway award, etc. My comment here is “Lets keep perspective.”
    Also, don’t want to split hairs here. But by the 1990s the Iditarod Race did indeed start at the starting line. Up until 1987 the Iditarod was typically a so called “camping trip” to the Bering Sea Coast. In 1987 two mushers Jerry Austin and another guy, I can’t remember his name, shot off the starting line and raced to Nome. The result was five teams finished the Iditarod in fairly close competition for 1st place. It was a full 24 hours before musher number 6 crossed the finish line. By 1998 the race was on…at the starting line. Just sayin. Happy Trails. Dewey Halverson

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    • if memory serves me right, Dewey, the other guy was Linwood. but here’s my question: even if the top money went to the winner of the dog care award, wouldn’t everything you say still apply? wouldn’t there still be people racing for the same reasons you suggest? and wouldn’t it be possible that if they had that perfect team and managed it right, they’d win both the race and the dog care honors? as for the rest of it, i’m not sure how black and white the decision at the finish line now. sometimes luck plays a role, as you should known as well as anyone. sometimes gaming the rules can get you a victory, as Joe Garnie learned when he was on the wrong end of that. and sometimes, there is suspicion to believe, some of what we might call old-fashioned Tour de France tactics enter the picture.

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      • Craig, Tongue in cheek. 1987 Jerry and I led the race. I am the other guy.
        You and I both know the real stories about the behind the chicanery to win the Iditarod. I was just trying to be polite and politically correct when I referred to the absolute, of first musher across the finish line. I’m trying my best to not go on a diatribe.
        My only point is that dogs care honors are so subjective that they would have the potential to mean everything in one year for care and integrity of a team. And…the next year mean absolutely nothing because of the reasons I listed. Nepotism, friendship, public opinion, bribery, showmanship…Then everyones in a turmoil.
        Yes, the finish line has been Tour de Franced. But, it can be more closely monitored than subjectivity.
        I look forward to following and commenting until we both mush off into the sunset of old age and irrelevance.

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      • Presumption of guilt or abuse, disqualify any musher with a dead dog!? Not that nonsense again! Swenson pushed for that rule saying he never had a dog die on the Iditarod. It was also a result of the arrogance of the veterinarians who presumed they could screen dogs to prevent any with health liabilities from entering. It backfired and should have taught ITC and the rest of the sport that sled dog races and rules can’t be immune to the normal due process and rights of civil societies. But that still is more “honored in the breech than in the observance” where the stakes are low enough to allow race organizations to get away with it.

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  2. You don’t have to pay the mushers to take good care of their dogs. It wouldn’t be fair anyway unless all the teams were included, not just the ones deemed to be “competitive”. It’s a race so by definition everyone is being competitive. It would be a joke if it was only limited to the top 20 finishers. You think the musher who finishes 21st isn’t competing?

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    • Will: it’s not fair now. the 21st place finisher gets less money than the 20th place finisher and a lot less than the winner. life’s not fair. this sort of set up would, indeed, be more subjective. but it isn’t about paying “the mushers to take good care of their dogs.” it’s about rewarding the musher who does the best job of maintaining the team on the trail on the way to the finish line. and you know, as a highly experienced dog man yourself, how tricky and difficult that task. not everyone manages it as well even if they are all trying their best to take good care of their dogs.

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  3. I remember in the first years of Alpirod no dog pool, that no dogs could be dropped and later returned to the team for the rest of the 12 day long stage race. One argument I heard and strongly disagreed with was that mushers would run their dogs into the ground then rest them for a day. That was the “better dog care-based rules” hypothesis. Total misunderstanding of sled dogs and mushers to think so. In fact the opposite, we were more inclined to hook up a questionable dog when we knew it could not be dropped temporarily. In those years in the last half of the race many teams and dog trucks stunk to high heaven with gastroenteritis. This was never a problem to any extent after the rules were changed to allow the dog pool.

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  4. As a direction for incremental change it’s a good idea. See what the results are. Increase the payout and reward for dog care to include several top-ranked teams in that category. But bad-mouthing “other” mushers for any reason as an argument for change never worked well in the past. Don’t foul your own nest.

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  5. Lots of flowery sentences in this article. But nothing about how a $25,000 Vet award would be determined? Would it be purely subjective, as it is today? Don’t you think that would be a certain source of controversy, once big money is involved? Or would objective physiological tests be part of the judging? Hydration, red blood cell count, bun/creatin levels, temperature, resting heart rate, etc? The cheap and easy option would be a panel of vet judges deciding like they do currently. But with money on the line, that will mean mushers making grooming stops for their dogs before the checkpoints, to get their dogs buffed and purtied-up just like an AKC show. Welcome to the Alaska Sled Dog Pageant, formerly the Iditarod.

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    • oh, i don’t know that they’d necessarily make grooming stops, Tim. but they might try to butter up some vets. would that be a good thing or a bad thing? and yes, there would be controversy. this is Iditarod. there is always controversy.

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  6. Just for your information Craig, Frank’s concept is what I consider as being the future of the sled dog sport and the way we try to move our Lekkarod race here in France. Not gonna detail it in this comments, but if you wanna get in touch with me I will explain you by email. And thanks for your great papers, fully agree with your approach. Prof Dominique Grandjean, DVM, former Iditarod vet in the old days and president of Lekkarod stage sled dog race.

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  7. Terrific idea, Frank! I think the vast majority of fans would agree. Most of us are fans because we love the dogs, first and foremost. And this describes perfectly what I have been trying to elucidate for years: “Iditarod morphing from an adventure race into a sled-dog version of NASCAR.”
    This may be my favorite article to date.

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