Seavey wins

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.


Only four days ago, Seavey issued an ultimatum that he’d sit out the race unless it got rid of drug chief Morrie Craig and modified its new “personal conduct” rule.

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.

Unsolved mystery

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.

Along the way, he won again in 2017 to push the oldest-to-win bar to 57,  and twice finished runner-up to Dallas.

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.





14 replies »

  1. If ITC wanted to see what drugs these dogs are given during the “training season”, it would be easy with a “hair sample test”…
    I believe this is the direction that Dr. Craig wished to move the drug testing policy and ITC refused.

    “A urine drug test is used to test for drug use over the three days preceding the test. A hair follicle drug test is the only drug test that can detect repeated drug use up to 90 days prior to the test. … Because of the rate of hair growth, drugs can’t be detected in the hair until five to seven days after use.”

    • Hmm . Where did you get info itc refused hair tests ? I am hoping they implement that test method in combination With urine testing . Urine can detect drug metabolites at different time frames for different drugs . Harder steroids for several 6-9 weeks. Most drugs for several weeks. A scientific lab would be best consulted for precise info as I know very little. Morrie will still be in the research end of itc and Stu and Morrie were working on hair research together. Hopefully that continues. If you know information about Morries hair test program, please share it if you feel like it . Thanks

      • truth,
        you say in your reply “Stu and Morrie were working on hair research together.”
        so there is a confirmation of the “discussions” at the very minimum.
        the technology has existed for a long time, the only problem is allowing “tolerances” for drugs found in food, etc.
        Dr. Craig is at the top of animal drug testing in America.
        He has worked with Grey Hound racing kennels since the 1980’s and even tests “racing pigeons”
        He was awarded an award from the Department of Defense for his research in 2002-2003.
        I suspect he was tired of allowing drugs like Lidocaine to go “undisclosed” for mushers…hence he talked to Wade Marrs…
        I am no expert at drug testing…but I can say that if Dr. Craig was tolerant to work for industries like ITC and Grey Hound Racing, then he was also tolerant of controls to provide valid results.

      • And furthermore,
        the truth that I am uncovering through research shows direct connections with “Animal Testing”, the Department of Defense and Sled Dogs.
        funny how Dr. Craig is awarded Department of Defense award the same time Dr. Davis is awarded 1 million dollars by Department of Defense for his Sled Dog “Research”…
        Why is the Military so interested in racing huskies and the drugs that they are taking?

      • Thank you . I am told military is interested becouse they are using as pretesting for their soldiers being dropped off at high altitude and having them ready to fight without becoming ill – Davis research. Perhaps I was misled and it’s for their service dogs and not for their soldiers? I don’t know . That’s a question for Davis and his cohort ,M. B. I’m just sincerely hoping Itc finds a bulldog as qualified as Morrie. Thank You

      • truth,
        I question the legitimacy of applying sled dog research to “high altitude soldiers” since the dogs live, train and race at a low elevation, even though we are at a higher “Latitude” in Alaska.
        This still would not explain why the DOD commended Dr. Craig for his work with “drug testing”?
        It is common knowledge that U.S. soldiers use and are given “stimulants” during combat.
        Hitler was famous for his Crystal Meth labs in Germany and consumed large amounts himself (hence his psychotic behavior).
        The German Wehremacht were unstoppable due to their “intoxication” and loss of fear from Meth.
        I have a friend who was a U.S. Army Ranger in the Iraq war, he stated when he was set to parachute over Fallujah…that he was injected with many “medications”…he told me he did not sleep for a week during combat.
        I also have a different friend (also a veteran) who is given Tramadol by the VA hospital in Anc.

  2. Let’s hope itc gets an even more aggressive drug tester . Someone not nice like Morey and can’t be pushed around. Or influenced. What I would like to see is Itc outsource it to a company like work safe so the results can’t be tampered and results are in the open so the race becomes even more level playing field . One musher -Seavey pushing the tester out doesn’t look particularly impartial. Though Morey did have checkered past . Let’s hope Iditarod uses this to improve and become more transparent. Iditarod has a huge opertunity for advancement and improvements. Let’s hope the new board jumps on it with full brain power!

  3. The good news here is that musher “sign ups” for the 2019 race are down from 52 mushers in 2018 to only 28 mushers for 2019…that is $96,000 less for the ITC gang to have for their budget (and salaries)…
    Add in the money lost from sponsors like Wells Fargo and Jack Daniels dropping out and mushers might really just be racing for that “bag of dog food” in Nome!

  4. Good for Mitch! When push came to shove, it was Craig that blinked.
    I suspect things were going to get hot for him (Craig) and he chose to resign.

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