The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on Friday squelched a scurrilous rumor that musher Nicolas Petit of Girdwood doped dogs during the 2017 race, but could offer nothing new as regards the mystery of who doped four-time champ Dallas Seavey’s dogs.
The 30-year-old Seavey, who now calls Talkeetna home, contends someone sabotaged him by slipping tramadol, a synthetic opioid, to his team in the Nome dog yard after the 2017 race. Iditarod chief veterinarian Stuart Nelson said Friday there is no way of telling if that claim is true or not.
The Iditarod stuck by its original assessment the doping could have happened anytime within 15 hours of urine being collected from the Seavey dogs in Nome because, Nelson said, that’s the only conclusion the science supports.
He also disputed Seavey’s claim that tramadol is a “powerful sedative” no competitive musher would give dogs during a race. Depending on the dosing, Nelson said, “potentially it could” help.
With the Iditarod and Seavey warring over the efficacy of tramadol in sled-dog racing and the doping timeline, Petit – the third-place finisher in the 2017 Iditarod just behind Seavey – ended up sucked into the mess by a doping report Louisiana toxicologist Patricia Williams wrote in an effort to clear Seavey.
The report cited Iditarod drug-testing records showing the anabolic steroid metandienone, the stimulant theobromine, and naloxone, an antidote for opioid overdoses, in 2017 urine samples “not related to the Seavey team.”
Williams’ statement fueled widespread speculation among Iditarod mushers as to whose dogs were found with those drugs. The name of Petit, something of an Iditarod outsider, soon popped up.
Where or how the speculation started is not clear. A relative newcomer to Iditarod, Petit is not the most beloved musher in the Iditarod field.
French-born, he spent his formative teen years in New Mexico before moving to Alaska 18 years ago and didn’t get involved with sled dogs until he started working for Iditarod veteran Dario Daniels seven years ago.
Petit eventually left the Daniels operation to start his own sled dog business. While Daniels spiraled downhill until his suicide in 2014, Petit flourished. While not necessarily the warmest person around other humans, Petit forms amazing bonds with dogs, according to former handlers.
Five years ago, Petit surprised the Iditarod field with a dog team that finished sixth, a huge improvement for a guy who’d finished 28th running the team of Chugiak’s Jim Lanier and then 29th with some dogs cobbled together from Raymie Redington and others.
When Petit pushed a team a little too hard and was forced to scratch while running third on the way to the Bering Sea coast in 2014, some wrote his 2013 performance off as a fluke, but he came back the next year to finish 10th and then seventh in 2016 and third last year.
In a sport long dominated by a cliquish and established old guard, that sort of improvement was sure to raise eyebrows. The 2017 Iditarod winner Mitch Seavey, Dallas’s dad, is a veteran of 23 Iditarods. Dallas grew up racing Iditarod and is now an 11-race veteran.
Fourth-place finisher, 31-year-old Joar Leifseth Ulsom has run only five competitive Iditarods, like Petit, but he traces his mushing history back to his Norwegian homeland and started his Iditarod career with an impressive, seventh-place, rookie-of-the-year finish in 2013. Forty-one-year-old, fifth-place finisher Jessie Royer from Montana has been running Iditarod since 2001. Sixth-place finisher Wade Marrs, 26, from Willow grew up mushing dogs on the Iditarod Trail and is a good buddy of Dallas.
In this group, Petit is the odd musher out. It would be somewhat natural, given human nature, for suspicions to focus on him if there was another doping positive unrelated to Dallas.
Nelson – who sat for an interview Friday along with Iditarod Chief Executive Officer Stan Hooley, Iditarod Race Director/Race Marshal Mark Nordman, and Iditarod Chief Operations Officer Chas St. George – said there were no positives as Williams claims.
What there was, Nelson said, were “bench notes” recording chemical signatures that indicated a need to take a closer look at a urine sample for a specific drug.
“Initially, there is a screening procedure using a HPLC/MS/MS to look for the 375 drugs detectable by this preliminary test,” an Iditarod handout explained in more detail. “If the data indicated possible prohibited drugs, then the urine is rerun with a different mass spec (spectrometer) technique to confirm the positive identity of a prohibited drug.”
In the case of these bench notes, “all (later) tests were negative,” Nelson said.
Within hours of the Iditarod leadership meeting individually with groups of Alaska reporters to answer questions and handout the “General Summary of the ITC Drug Testing Program,” however, the Seaveys turned over to KTVA-TV Iditarod drug testing notes that appeared to contradict Nelson’s statement. The notes are scratched over and hard to read but appear to say:
Metandienone: 331 pg (picograms)
Theobromine: 27.4 ng/ml (nanograms per milliliter)
Naloxone: In a range of readings.
It is chemically impossible to measure the quantity of any drug in fluid unless the drug has been specifically identified.
The March 15 report compiled for Iditarod says it was authored by Petra Hartmann at Industrial Labs in Wheatridge, Colo. and covered 58 unidentified urine samples. They appear to come from the top-20 Iditarod teams finishing in Nome.
The words “20 teams/pool” are handwritten at the top of the second page of the report above the sample codes for the urine.
By rule, Iditarod drug-tests all of the top-20 finishers and randomly samples all teams – front-runners and those at the back of the race – along the trail. All told, Nelson said, Iditarod collects about 300 urine samples per race.
Industrial Labs has refused to answer repeated requests for interviews from craigmedred.news over the course of the last two months.
“ITC officials weren’t able to explain Friday what appears to be a redacted section a few lines below the Tramadol findings for Seavey’s dogs,” reported KTVA’s Dave Goldman.
The revelation that measurable qualities of other drugs appear to have been found yet again made a mess of an Iditarod attempt at transparency. St. George emailed Saturday afternoon that the organization is compiling more information to try to clarify the situation.
The latest mess somewhat mirrors the Oct. 9 “Iditarod Statement on Rule 39 Revised.” It was in that communique that Iditarod revealed it was rewriting its doping rule “because several dogs in a single musher’s team in the 2017 Race tested positive for a prohibited substance.”
It was the race’s way of backing into the first-ever, public announcement of doped Iditarod dogs.
The statement went on to say that race organizers had decided they couldn’t “prove intent” on the part of the musher involved, thus couldn’t take action against him or her, and as a result decided the doping rule needed to be rewritten to stipulate “strict liability.”
Strict liability is the norm in other sports. It means that if a competitor is caught doped or with doped animals he or she is considered responsible and forced to demonstrate, if possible, how the drugs might have been administered if he or she didn’t do it.
Drug-testing authorities say that without a strict liability rule there’s little sense in conducting a drug-testing program, in part because of dilemmas like those in which Iditarod now finds itself.
Seavey has offered no evidence to show anyone else doped his dogs, but Iditarod cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he doped the dogs because it is possible, no matter how remote the possibility, that there might be a saboteur.
The French solved this problem by making it illegal to dope in a sporting event. That opens the door for a full-fledged, legal investigation of any reported doping. But there is no law against doping dogs in Alaska or the U.S.
The best sports organizations have left is the strict liability standard.
“The strict liability rule for the finding of a prohibited substance in an athlete’s specimen, with a possibility that sanctions may be modified based on specified criteria, provides a reasonable balance between effective anti-doping enforcement for the benefit of all clean athletes and fairness in the exceptional circumstance where a prohibited substance entered an athlete’s system through no fault or negligence on the athlete’s part,” according to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
A guilty-until-proven-innocent rule for Iditarod, however, was sure to upset some independent-minded mushers, and most especially the one with the dogs doped in 2017.
“Because of the sensitivity of this matter,” the Iditarod statement of October said, “the ITC does not intend to disclose the name of the musher involved.”
A firestorm ensued. The Iditarod Official Finishers Club, an organization representing about 700 people who have completed the 1,000-mile “Last Great Race” from Anchorage to Nome, protested that by refusing to name the suspect musher the Iditarod had just cast suspicion on everyone in the top-20.
Marrs delivered a statement to the Anchorage Daily News from a “Musher X” proclaiming he was being treated unfairly after being told he would not be held responsible for doping. The Iditarod issued a statement saying Musher X was blowing smoke. Mitch Seavey rallied to the defense of Musher X on Facebook.
The Iditarod eventually bowed to musher and public pressure and revealed the doped dogs belong to Mitch’s son, Dallas.
Dallas was almost instantly on YouTube with an 18-minute rant saying he’d been set-up by somebody and then “thrown under the bus” by Iditarod. He argued it was the Iditarod’s responsibility to “protect” mushers and lashed out at animal-rights activists, other mushers, Iditarod officials and the Iditarod Board as possible saboteurs.
Dallas followed with interviews with malleable Alaska reporters in which he suggested there was a conspiracy to defame the Iditarod’s most valuable star. A well-spoken, four-time winner by age 30, Seavey was considered the bright face of a new, more youthful Iditarod.
Dallas hinted the old dogs wanted to do him in. He all but named Rick Swenson as a conspirator in a public lynching with suggestions an Iditarod board member from the Fairbanks area was maneuvering behind the scenes to protect his race record. Swenson lives in the Fairbanks area and is the race’s only five-time champ, and Dallas is the only musher in the game given much chance of besting that string.
Dallas eventually announced he was abandoning the Iditarod to take his dogs and race the 750-mile Finnmarksløpet in Norway. Friends and some dog handlers later said that had been his plan all year, though he signed up for the Iditarod in the summer with no one saying a word about a doping investigation then still underway.
Dallas is now in Norway, and the Iditarod is stumbling toward the Saturday start of the race with Sam Singer, the master of disaster, nipping at its heels. Singer is the founder of San Fransisco-based Singer Associates Inc., the public-relations firm Dallas retained to clear his name.
Dallas promised a Singer investigation to figure out who doped his dogs and where and when and how, but so far what the company has done is engage in a masterful game of spin that has left Iditarod always a step behind and often looking bad.
The Dallas/Singer end game is unclear, though there were last summer rumblings in the small world of Alaska long-distance sled dog racing that Mitch was so fed up with the way Iditarod was run that he wanted to start his own long-distance race.
He is not alone in his unhappiness. The Finisher’s Club earlier this month called for Andy Baker, the chairman of the Iditarod Board to step down immediately and for other board members to follow shortly, only to leave a lot of other Iditarod finishers questioning how the informal organization had made that decision.
And then there were the sponsors. They asked The Foraker Group, a consultancy, to take a look at the way the Iditarod was being managed. It came back with a report warning that both sponsors and mushers “are on the verge of withdrawing their support for this race as a result of their distrust in this board.”
“As a nonprofit corporation, ITC is under no legal obligation for transparency of confidential information,” consultant Dennis McMillian wrote in that report, “however, such disclosure is recommended…to ensure that the reputation of the ITC, its sponsors, and participants are protected.”
The Iditarod took a shot at improved transparency on Friday. Whether that will help or hurt remains to be seen, but there is unfortunately much in the drug test statement that Singer Associates can spin.
To quote from the handout:
- “A ‘detection’ is not necessarily synonymous with a ‘Positive Drug Test.'”
- “There are only two options for a Drug Testing Program. The first is to have a 100 percent zero tolerance for anything. The second is to utilize professional analyses in interpreting any findings. Our policy has been the latter.”
- “The role of the Drug Testing Program is to detect the presence of performance enhancing medications….It is a consulting role, as enforcement follows a Chain of Command beginning with the Race Marshall and concluding with the ITC Board of Directors as the ultimate enforcing authority.”
Taken together, those statements could all too easily be interpreted to lend credence to Dallas’s suggestion that his doping positive came because the board in its “ultimate enforcing authority” didn’t like him, and that if they’d liked him, he might have been cleared with merely a “detection.”
Nelson said that in his 23 years with Iditarod, the Dallas positive for tramadol was the first positive test with which he has been involved. Nordman said there have been some other detections. He specifically mentioned procaine (procaine hydrochloride).
Known commonly by the trade name Novocaine, it is a common numbing agent for injuries that “became the first and best-known substitute for cocaine in local anesthesia” starting in the early 1900s, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Procaine has popped up so often in racing greyhounds in Australia, apparently from procaine penicillin used to treat meat animals, that authorities established a threshold limit of 100 ng/ml to draw a line between drug “detections” and “doping positives.”
Greyhound racing has been aggressively pursuing dopers for years. All kinds of drugs showing up in greyhounds including, with some regularity, cocaine, sometimes from apparent contamination and sometimes not.
Tests were once run on greyhounds in Oregon to determine if cocaine in low doses was a performance-enhancing drug. It was discovered it wasn’t, said veterinarian Linda Blythe, a research collaborator at the Dr. Morrie Craig Laboratory at Oregon State University.
But, she added, some tests were also run with theobromine, the drug possibly found in an Iditarod dog last year, and the greyhounds gained two and a half lengths on the track.
Theobromine is a metabolite of caffeine. Doping dogs with coffee used to be one of the tricks of the late George Attla, the Huslia Hustler, generally recognized as the state’s greatest dog musher.
There are reliable reports that drugs more powerful than caffeine were involved in the Iditarods that predate Nelson’s arrival, and it’s unclear how many detections there have been since he was on the scene.
Worse to worse
Were this the least of it, there would be problems, but there is more.
“Part 2” of the drug testing handout from the Iditarod on Friday contained suggestions to mushers on which banned drugs they should stop using just before the race.
“To protect your dogs from a positive drug test, it is recommended that all medications containing prohibited substances be discounted at least TWO WEEKS prior to the start with the exception of ‘long-acting’ respiratory products, ie. Betasone, DepoMedrol, Vetalog and others,” the statement said. “These should be discontinued at least four weeks prior to the race. If you have any questions about medications, please contact me.”
Both Betasone (betamethasone) and DepoMedrol (methylprednisolone) are glucocorticoids on the WADA banned list. They are anti-inflammatory drugs used primarily to help athletes return to competition quickly after injuries, but some argue they offer performance advantages as well.
“Glucocorticoids have been known since the 1930s to improve muscle endurance, which is why they are banned,” Bill Gifford wrote in “The Scientific American Guide to Cheating in the Olympics” in 2016. “They are also used for recovery, enabling athletes to sustain greater volume and intensity of training.”
The “greater volume of training” was how defrocked Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong in 2001 defended his performance as clean in a now infamous Nike ad where he declared, “Everybody wants to know what I’m on. What am I on? I’m on my bike, bustin’ my ass six hours a day. What are you on?”
Drugs, as it turned out, helped him prevent the physical breakdowns likely to cut into all that training time. With some dog teams now reported to be running up to 5,000 miles in training in preparation for Iditarod, questions have been raised about whether there could be competitors taking advantage of the Armonstrongesque training help.
Vetalog (triamcinolone), meanwhile, is a drug that has become controversial in equine sports. The drug was at the heart of a lawsuit over Kentucky Derby hopeful “I Want Revenge.”
“On two occasions, veterinarians have testified, I Want Revenge’s ankle was injected with what amounted to new transmission fluid,” Joe Drape wrote in the New York Times in 2009. “The second time was just four days before the Derby and was done at the request of his trainer, Jeff Mullins. Regardless of the outcome of the dispute, the treatments are a striking example of how the use, and overuse, of legal medications have placed America’s thoroughbred population at ever greater risk of injury, and, in some cases, catastrophic breakdown.”
The drug is another used to keep animals performing in the short-term, but with possible, negative, longterm consequences.
There are some mushers who have suggested the Iditarod needs to do a whole lot more about possible out-of-competition doping of dogs. They argue that the use of drugs in training is where the greatest gains in performance might be realized.
Iditarod management, in an effort to make sure it has a race free of doping positives, appears to be going in the opposite direction.
After specifically calling out Betasone, DepoMedrol and Vetalog as drugs to be purged from dogs before the race, the drug-testing program handout adds that, “in addition, the Musher & Veterinary Handbook has a listing of categories of prohibited substances and clearance times for your review.”
Correction: An early version of this story mistakenly said Iditarod Race Marshal Mark Nordman referred to “cocaine” drug detections; he actually said “procaine” drug detections. That version of the story also erroneously reported Petit once ran Dario Daniels dogs in Iditarod.