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.