Musher’s goodbye


Iditarod champ Mitch Seavey/ photo

This story has been updated with the latest on the Morrie Craig lawsuit

Three-time Iditarod champ Mitch Seavey, the oldest man ever to lead Alaska’s Last Great Race into Nome, says he’s sitting out the 2019 running of the Superbowl of sled-dog sports.

No, the soon to turn 59-year-old musher isn’t retiring. He’s protesting.

“For the first time in 25 years, I won’t sign up for the Iditarod Race (on the) last Saturday of June,” he wrote in a Wednesday missive to members of the Iditarod Official Finisher’s Club. “I love the Iditarod Race, and I am willing to accept a lot of things I don’t really agree with. But there are two existing circumstances which are unacceptable to me because they leave mushers far too vulnerable.”

No, it’s not the mystery saboteur or villain of the trail who caused so much trouble for son Dallas Seavey in 2016.¬†

The problems, in the eyes of Mitch are:

  1. “Dr. Morrie Craig continued as chief of drug testing, and
  2. “New Personal Conduct (Gag) rule.”

Craig is the man in charge of the program that found Dallas’s dog team dosed with tramadol, a pain-killer reported to provide dogs a feeling of euphoria, after the finish of the race in 2016.

Dallas has denied he gave the dogs the drug. Dallas hired a high-priced public relations firm to catch whoever did it. Dallas has yet to identify a saboteur, but the PR firm has done a pretty good job of muddying the waters of the Iditarod’s very minimalist anti-doping program.

Mitch writes that he doesn’t like the program because it too easily threatens the reputations of mushers, a debatable charge given that the field contains a cast of characters with all sorts of reputations.

Among the most loved is four-time champ Lance Mackey from Fairbanks who boasts a pretty good “bad boy” reputation and enough of a court file to support it. And he’s not alone in the category of not-quite-clean-cut.

Mitch’s other complaint has more substance:

“…The program is deeply flawed and current protocols do not insure a valid test or absence of abuse. A ‘positive’ in the Iditarod would not as stand as a positive in any sophisticated program and ‘traces’ can be excused.”

The Iditarod has no standards for positive tests and no threshold limits to establish when a trace is meaningless or not. Under Iditarod rules, a positive is whatever the Iditarod Trail Committee board of directors decides is a positive.

Seavey places all the blame for this on Craig, suggesting he decides what is a trace amount “usually dismissed as tainted dog food,” makes the judgment call as to what’s a positive, and might misuse the key to bar codes that link the names of mushers to their numbered dog-pee samples after the race.

Mitch goes on to tie the Iditarod drug “czar” to a case of sexual harassment at Oregon State University still in litigation, and a family feud lawsuit that led to Craig and his wife being ordered to pay relatives $1.1 million for allegedly cheating them out of $142,000 while managing a trust belonging to Craig’s aunt.

An Oregon judged on Wednesday blocked the university’s attempt to fire Craig.¬†Craig’s attorney has been pushing for a public airing of the accusations against his client. The university has refused to identify Craig’s accusers or the details of their allegations and has fought to try him by secret tribunal.

Easily intimidated mushers

“Wade Mars (sic), a top Iditarod musher and IOFC president, felt threatened when Craig approached him at the starting line of the 2018 race and suggested his name might be connected to a positive test result unless he stopped supporting Dallas Seavey in his Iditarod drug testing controversy,” Seavey wrote.

Craig has denied that happened and said he simply told Marrs that traces of lidocaine that showed up in the mushers food probably came from contaminated meat Marrs was feeding his team.

Mitch isn’t buying the explanation. He contends that under the Iditarod’s new strict liability rule for doping, it would be too easy for Craig to set someone up. The strict liability rule, the standard in other sports, stipulates that mushers should be treated as if they doped the dogs unless they can show some credible explanation for how else the dope might have ended up in the dogs.

The rule arose out of the Dallas affair. Race officials discovered then that they were going to find it impossible to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Dallas doped the team unless they could find a witness who actually saw Dallas administer the drugs. Given that Iditarod mushers spend most of their time away from people, there were no witnesses to anything.

Mitch said he could “accept a strict liability drug policy if the system and the people conducting it were trustworthy. I wish I could convince myself that they are, badly as I want to run the Iditarod, but it’s a ‘bridge too far’ for me.”

The Iditarod is facing plenty of trust issues. Mushers don’t trust the board. The board doesn’t trust mushers. Knowledgeable observers don’t know who to trust. Animal rights groups trust no one. Fans trust only the musher they love.

The board doesn’t even trust Craig, except when it does. On March 8, after the Marrs incident, it voted 4 to 1 to terminate its contract with Craig. The next day it reversed course and decided to keep Craig, but reprimand him for talking to Marrs.

What happened to spark that change has been the basis of considerable speculation and rumor with some suggesting Craig might know too much about past, laboratory findings of drugs that were treated as something other than positive drug tests by the ITC board.

Multiple sources have told of mushers that were told to leave Iditarod or take time off after their dog pee showed drug use although until the Dallas case Iditarod claimed there had never been a positive drug test.

But doping isn’t Mitch’s only complaint.

He calls a new “personal conduct rule” that warns against “engaging in illegal activity” and holds the musher responsible for the behavior of handlers or associates is “serious overreach.”

“By the letter of the law,” Mitch contends, “a minor infraction by a handler or family member could have repercussions on the musher even in the off-season….

“Doubtless there are mushers who ought to moderate their behavior and rhetoric. I personally have been repeatedly slandered by at least one ‘musher” signed up for the race and their ‘associates.’ I agree that some form of a personal conduct rule is necessary. But this rule goes overboard.”

Given all of this, Mitch said, he just can’t be part of the event because “I have far more to lose by exposing myself to these conditions than I have to gain even if I could dare hope to win again.”

He finished third this year.

CORRECTION: The original version of this story had Mitch Seavey’s age off by a year.

12 replies »

  1. Mitch and his family have long been ardent supporters of mushing . One of the few third generation distance mushing families in Alaska . As well as mentor to young people .He at times even generously bank rolled them . Mitches father in early 70s gave his winnings back to Iditarod during a budget short fall . Mitch started from very modest beginnings. He Worked to the extreme . Managed to raise a family , develop a buisness that brings happiness to people visiting Alaska and live his dream. He has provided a place for people to learn about sled dogs and make a living for themselves. I believe mitch is proof hard work pays off and is an inspiration to young and old . Nothing was handed to him on a platter . Iditarod will be less colorful without him and his team .

  2. Those are both good reasons to complain loudly and strenuously based on principle, but don’t add up to enough for a winning team to sit the race out. Clearly there is more to the story.

    As an aside, I’m pretty fed up with the ITC’s legacy of bullshit.

  3. I can understand Mitch’s logic. He is against good ole boy tyranny. Subjective drug testing with no recourse or independant B sample analysis. Gag law straight from the Mafia play book. Will cost him. And I wonder if Dallas can afford to miss another Iditarod. Should find out soon. But Seavey boycotts will likely do little to change the direction of the Iditarod race mismanagement. You can’t fix stupid.

  4. According to this article “Multiple sources have told of mushers that were told to leave Iditarod or take time off after their dog pee showed drug use”.

    Was Mitch advised to “take time off” from Iditarod because of his use of Wintergreen oil which has salycilate in it?

  5. Sorry to hear you are leaving now Mitch. I totally understand you concerns and agree BIG CHANGES need to come right away. Perhaps lots of other mushers will follow suit and Iditarod 2019 may have to sit out for one year to regroup and get a grip. This is not what my friend Joe Jr. would have wanted this race to come to. Happier Trails!

  6. Nice to see mushers are the ones “protesting” the ITC Board cause let’s face it everything stated above (like the gag rule and Dr. Craig’s monopoly)…is all under the Board’s control.
    Why can’t we test the dog’s urine in Alaska?
    I am sure the lab at Providence Medical Center in Anchorage is quite capable.
    On another note…if you sit out the 2019 race, there may not be any sponsors around by 2020, so you will be free from the ITC Mob by “default”.
    I did hear some positive news that Mitch moved one of his kennels to “tethered free” for the tourists this summer…a start is a start and I am sure there are some happy huskies as a result.
    nice job!

    • I tried several tethered free housing methods in 2009/10 and the results were pretty disappointing tbh. There were a few pairings and even triple-ings that worked, but for the most part I had to scrap the program after I ran into too many fight related injuries. Especially disappointing given the fact that the initial findings were very encouraging.

      • Jason,
        I believe you on that.
        I have enough trouble keeping two young huskies apart.
        Six or seven dogs would probably be max for one person to handle in a kennel like this, but if you were just out mushing as a recreational hobby or transportation…seven dogs would be plenty.

      • Steve I think it’s dangerous for anyone to start quantifying how many is “too many” for a given type of containment system, etc. Over the last 10 years, we have gone from a handful of dogs to 29 dogs, and have always utilized a kennel setup, partly b/c the property we purchased already had a lot of elements that lent itself to doing that kind of setup. We very rarely have fights, and when we do it’s when the dogs are all loose during one of their twice-daily free-run/excercise times…not when they are in their pens/kennels. With that said, it’s not for everyone, or for every breed of dog.
        IMO, there are many different ways to meet, or to fail to meet, a dogs’ needs. What is best depends a lot of geography, breed of dog, lifestyle limitations of caregiver, among other things.

      • I should add that in our setup, every dog has a buddy (eg is paired) with another dog. Admittedly we put a lot of thought into what dogs we pair. Our experience has been that it works well for us and our dogs, our lifestyle, and geography. I would not try to push the same on someone else.

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