Alaska sled dog sports were abuzz Friday with the news that the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race chief of drug testing is out, and three-time Iditarod champ Mitch Seavey, the oldest musher ever to win, is apparently headed back to try for victory number four.
Then came the surprise announcement from Iditarod that Craig had “made the decision to resign after more than 25 years at the helm.” A Oregon State University professor, Craig could not be immediately reached for comment.
What precipitated the resignation is unknown. Two days ago, a friend of Craig’s let it out that he and some veterinarians were working on and excited about an experimental hair-testing program to next year probe for out-of-competition doping of dogs.
Seavey has yet to sign up for the 2019 Iditarod, and there is no word on whether the personal conduct rule will be amended. But Seavey told KTUU-News that the Craig resignation “means I can run the Iditarod this year.”
The Seaveys have been after Craig’s hide since the dogs of the Sterling musher’s son, four-time champ Dallas from Willow, were found doped with tramadol after the finish of the race in Nome in 2017. Dallas immediately claimed he’d been sabotaged.
Craig was reported to be among the more skeptical as to that claim and had been, according to knowledgeable sources, continuing an effort to narrow the time frame for the period in which the doping had taken place, which might help identify who did it.
The Iditarod originally said the dogs could have been doped anywhere from 15 hours to moments before they were tested. Work was apparently underway to better define the timing of tramadol metabolism to try to establish a scale of metabolites to unmetabolized tramadol in a dog’s urine..
Dallas continues to insist he didn’t give the dogs tramadol, but no other suspects have emerged.
Tramadol is a synthetic opiod, but doesn’t exactly work like one in canines. It could, however, be useful to a sled dog driver.
One of the scientists most familiar with how dogs respond to the drug compared it to Cymbalta, a drug originally introduced to treat depression and anxiety, but which the Federal Drug Administration has now approved for the treatment of chronic musculoskeletal pain.
Dallas has told differing stories about his knowledge of tramadol. In the first, he said he’d never heard of the drug. In the second, he admitted it had once been prescribed for an ailing lead dog, but that he didn’t know if it had ever been used because his wife, Jen, was in charge of medicating the Seavey dogs.
The tramadol controversy caused Dallas to this year abandon Iditarod and take off for Norway to run the 750-mile Finnmarksløpet. Dallas has yet to make clear his Iditarod intentions for 2019.
For a race already struggling financially – Jack Daniels just joined the list of sponsors abandoning Iditarod – having one or both Seaveys sit out could have hurt. The 31-year-old Dallas is the hope of the future for a race with an aging fan base.
And Mitch is the dream of the AARP crowd. Since turning 53 in 2013, the elder Seavey has been on a tear. The 2013 victory made him the oldest ever to win the race, and he hasn’t finished worse than third since.
Contemporaries Jeff King from Denali Park and Martin Buser from Big Lake might have won more Iditarods at four each, but it could be argued that Mitch has now eclipsed them both despite being one victory short.
Only one other musher in Iditarod history has put together a string of top-three finishes to match or better Mitch’s six-in-a-row, and that was the legendary and late Susan Butcher from Manley. She notched seven before dropping to fourth, then 10th and retiring.
Butcher was then 39 years old. The same for Lance Mackey from Fairbanks when his remarkable string of four victories in a row ended in 2010. Since then, it has been all downhill – 16, 22, 19 and 43.
That Mitch has been so competitive through such a long period, especially at his age is, unprecedented.
Most of the top mushers hit their prime in their 40s and then faded. King last won in 2006 at age 45; he was 24th this year. Buser last won in 2002 at age 43; he was 28th this year. Four-time champ Doug Swingley from Montana notched his last victory at age 47 and is now long retired.
In general, the Iditarod has not been kind to old men, but Mitch has defied father time.
Though he turns 59 on Monday, no one is discounting the idea that he could win yet again if he enters the 2019 race. And one more victory would put him in the exclusive club of four-time winners with Dallas, Buser, King, Butcher and Swingley.
Rick Swenson from Two Rivers remains the only musher to have won five. He retired without any fanfare in 2012, but continued to serve on the Iditarod board of directors. He is now gone from the board.
CORRECTION: An early version of this story inadvertently omitted Lance Mackey.