Update: This story has been updated with Iditarod doping protocols.
Someone among the top-20 finishers in this year’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race found a way to perk their dogs up on the way to the Nome finish line, the Iditarod Trail Committee revealed today, but it’s still not saying who.
A press release posted on the race’s website revealed a doping allegation that has rocked the race involves Tramadol, a synthetic, opioid-like pain killer known for creating a sense of euphoria in people.
Details on how exactly the drug affects the mood of dogs are nowhere to be found, but it sounds like a good bet to improve the chance the animals arrive at the finish line of the 1,000-mile Last Great Race with their tails and up and looking perky.
Today’s press release reiterated that “several dogs from a single musher’s team” tested positive, and added that “based on the test results, it was estimated that the drug could have been administered somewhere between 15 hours prior to, and up until the time the team was tested in Nome.
“Urine samples were collected from the team for testing six hours after finishing the race.”
Tramadol can be given orally in either liquid or pill form or injected. The 15-hour time frame would indicate the drugs had to be administered in White Mountain, the penultimate checkpoint where mushers and teams must complete a mandatory 8-hour rest before heading for Nome, or somewhere along the trail on the way to the finish.
Most teams take 8- to 12-hours to cover this last 80 miles of trail.
Where to dope?
Between White Mountain and Nome, mushers stop only at the Safety Roadhouse checkpoint. Most teams only spend a few moments there before continuing on, and those moments are spent in the wide-open, white expanses in front of roadhouse. It would be an incredibly hard place to slip drugs to dogs unnoticed.
Zoya DeNure from Paxson did camp out for more than 7 hours at Safety this year, but it took her about 17 hours to go from White Mountain to Nome. That puts her outside of the 15-hour window and clearly establishes her as one of the few mushers who cannot be considered a suspect in the public eye.
But more than that, all of the mushers outside of the Iditarod top-20 can be ruled out because of Iditarod doping protocols. All teams in the race are sampled at the start of the race and randomly along the trail.
But only the top-20 teams are tested in Nome. Urine samples are typically taken from four to six dogs per team The guilty party could be anyone in the top-20, but some more than others have a motive to dope on the stretch run into Nome.
Race rules requires that mushers must have six dogs in harness at the finish. Given the number of dog mushers drop because of fatigue or minor injuries along the trail, some mushers are very close to the limit by the end of the race.
Dallas Seavey of Willow, the son of defending champ Mitch Seavey of Sterling, notched his fourth win in 2016 with only six dogs in harness. Five teams were close to that limit by Safety this year.
Dallas, who was chasing his father to the finish, was down to seven dogs, and Norwegian Joar Leifseth Ulsom, Paul Gebhardt from Kasilof, and Katherine Keith and her Kotzebue companion, former champ John Baker, were all down to eight dogs.
Most of them are innocent, but Iditarod has put them all in a tough spot with its failure to identify the musher whose team tested positive not for one dog but for several.
Iditarod says it has taken this position because it can’t prove the dog food of the musher with the doping positive wasn’t spiked. So instead of naming the individual with doped dogs, it is changing its drug rule to conform with those in most other sports which presume a competitor guilty if caught doping or with doped animals.
Mushers don’t much like the idea that if another doping case should occur the guilty party will be required to show they didn’t dope, or at least show how they might have been sabotaged. But the alternative is to let dopers escape responsibility for doping.
The Iditarod press release did clear defending race champion Mitch Seavey of suspicions the case might involve his use of methyl salicylate. Mitch, a three-time champ, has publicly promoted the use of a wintergreen oil on his dogs. Wintergreen contains salicylate, a prohibited drug, and has created problems for competitors in equine sports.
Indications are that salicylate has been detected in Iditarod dogs in the past, but in such low concentrations it was judged insignificant and nothing was done. The Iditarod has remained silent on that subject.
And on the far bigger question of doping with Tramadol, Iditarod spokesman Chas St. George continued to remain unavailable for comment and failed to return phone calls.