After a year of doping controversy and animals rights protests, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race heads into 2019 with the smallest field in 22 years foretelling what could be a rough year for Alaska winter tourism.
The 1,000-mile sled dog race and the 2,000-mile Iron Dog race, the world’s longest and toughest snowmobile competition, are the state’s two biggest sporting events and among its strongest winter tourism draws. And both have problems.
Stung by a struggling Alaska economy that cut into fundraising, a financially depleted Iron Dog organization almost canceled this year’s race, but bowed to the wishes of diehard Alaska snowmachiners to race no matter what and is now headed toward a Feb. 15 start with no announced purse but 25 teams of two ready to toe the start line anyway.
The field for the Iditarod, which normally dwarfs the Iron Dog, will be about the same size. Fifty three are officially entered in the internationally known Last Great Race, but the Iditarod invariably loses a team or a few to training issues before the traditional, first-Saturday in March start.
Seventeen of the top-20 finishers and nine of the top-10 from 2018 – led by defending champ Norwegian Joar Leifseth Ulsom and runner-up Nicolas Petit from the Alaska ski town of Girdwood – are back to race in 2019, but the one-time poster boy for the modern Iditarod is noticeably absent, and another well-known musher has been banned.
Problems and controversy
Doping suspect and four-time champ Dallas Seavey from Willow is the missing musher. Hugh Neff from Tok, the Cat-in-the-Hat musher, is the one locked out.
Neff was earlier this year banned from running the 2019 and 2020 versions of 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada because of a controversial dog death on that trail in February.
Ever since the death of a dog named Boppy, Neff has said he doesn’t know what else he could have done to save the dog from aspiration pneumonia as a result of regurgitating stomach contents and then inhaling them.
A 2006 study of Iditarod dog deaths found aspiration pneumonia among the most common causes of death. Eight of 23 dogs that died from 1994 to 2006 suffered from the ailment although it was listed as the direct cause of death in only four cases, according the report published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
A month after the Quest, Neff and his team finished the Iditarod without any problems.
A former Quest champion, Neff then appealed his Quest ban only to be judged by a secret panel of three judges in a hearing that a veterinarian working with Neff later called a cover-up for the failings of Quest veterinarians.
The Neff affair split the sled-dog racing community and continues to divide. Some mushers think Neff has been treated unfairly. Others think he is a shameless publicity hound whose dog care is suspect. They think he deserves whatever he gets.
Banned from the Quest in 2019, the 14-race Iditarod veteran entered the 2019 Iditarod only to get a note from race marshal Mark Nordman telling him he had been rejected, Neff said in a phone interview from his Tok home last week. He got no hearing.
“I wasn’t surprised,” he said. “”I just look at this as them protecting themselves.”
The Iditarod has faced growing pressure from animal-rights activists since the 2016 release of the documentary movie “Sled Dogs.” Activists associated with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) showed up at the start of the race last year to protest.
The movie “Sled Dogs” details the darkest of the dark side of sled dog sports. Mushing fans say that in doing so it paints an unfair picture.
Sled dogs, they argue, are family to most Alaska dog mushers. That is a claim largely true and equally irrelevant. Alaska like every other state is home to people who mistreat their children and other family members.
Seeing to it that dogs, especially working dogs, aren’t mistreated is a difficult issue, although there have been those both in and out of the mushing community increasing the pressure to ensure acceptable standards of care.
The non-profit group Mush with Pride has been at the forefront of those efforts. The organization now offers a voluntary kennel inspection and certification program that focuses on proper health care and kennel management.
Neff, however, questioned why a different standards is being applied to him than to other mushers in the wake of Boppy’s death from aspiration pneumonia.
He noted the Iditarod accepted the entry of Katherine Keith from Kotzebue despite dog deaths both this year and last. The death of her five-year-old husky Blondie was this year attributed to aspiration pneumonia as was the 2017 death of four-year-old Flash.
Neff sees some hypocrisy there, but admitted that “I’ve had issues.”
“I’m always trying to improve,” he added. “I’m still planning to run my dogs. I’ve got a couple new kids from Oregon here just wanting to be recreational mushers.
“What I’d really like to do is something like Norman Vaughan did.”
The late Col. Norman Vaughn was an Alaska legend who at age 92 organized the Norman Vaughan Serum Run from Nenana to Nome to celebrate sled dogs and the long ago, diphtheria serum run by a relay of sled dog teams that saved the Bering Sea city.
Neff, who has a reputation for pushing teams hard when in competition, said he would like to see an event that “is not about prestige and money.”
The Iditarod has long faced an internal struggle about whether it should be a professional, speed race with a big focus on money or an adventure-sport competition with the purse secondary.
Andy Baker of Kotzebue, the chairman of the Iditarod Board of Directors in 2017, said then the board was pushing for a $1 million purse. The comment came in response to a question from three-time-champ Mitch Seavey from Sterling who wanted to know, according to board minutes, “where we are going going forward. There has been talk about a million dollar purse.
“Are you working on changing the demographic of our audience from 60-year-old women to 34-year-old men? Are you working toward a TV contract again? I’m just asking if each board member considers thinking about what they want to see this race become in the future.”
Mitch’s comment reflected the split between mushers who want a doggy version of NASCAR and those in favor of a sled-dog race more along the lines of the legendary Marathon des Sables, a six-day race across the Sahara Desert in southern Morocco. The climatic opposite of Alaska, Morocco’s desert shares a desolation similar to that of the north. The Sahara population of one person per square mile is even smaller than that of Alaska which is now over 1.2 people per square mile.
When four-time champ Martin Buser from Big Lake broke nine days in 2002, most thought it was a freak combination of perfect trail and perfect weather unlikely to be repeated for a long time.
And eight years did past before four-time champ Lance Mackey from Fairbanks finished in 8 days, 23 hours, 59 minutes and 19 seconds in 2010. Two mushers cracked the nine-day mark the next year, but those were the only sub-nine day races until Dallas opened the floodgates in 2014.
Four others followed him across the finish line in under nine days that year, among them his father. The next year the number behind Dallas was two with Mitch again one of them.
By 2016, there were seven behind Dallas; by 2017, eight behind Mitch with Dallas second less than 16 minutes back. Mitch that year set the standing race record of 8 days, 3 hours and 40 minutes.
It was a big year for the Seaveys. At age 57, Mitch became the oldest musher ever to win the race, and he added to a family string of six straight victories.
Seven months later disaster struck. The Iditarod for the first time in its history revealed it had caught a musher doping dogs, but refused to name him or her. The Iditarod Official Finishers Club almost immediately objected, arguing that by shielding the musher with doped dogs at the finish line the race was making every one of the top-20 finishers in Nome doping suspects, given that all of the top-20 teams at the finish are tested.
A “Musher X” soon emerged in the pages of the Anchorage Daily News, the state’s largest newspaper, to protest his innocence. Musher X eventually turned out to be Dallas and from there the situation just went from bad to worse.
Dallas claimed his team had been sabotaged, an idea first floated by Mitch, by animal rights activists or other mushers and that the Iditarod was responsible for not offering enough protection for mushers.
Iditarod said it wasn’t holding Dallas responsible for the doping, because the doping testers couldn’t prove he gave his dogs the pain-killing synthetic opioid tramadol. But the race stuck to the position that the dogs were Dallas’s responsibility. And given that officials couldn’t prove he had administered the drugs, they also couldn’t prove he hadn’t administered the drugs.
The race told Dallas he was welcome to compete in 2018. But Iditarod wasn’t going to apologize, and it changed its rule to stipulate that if a musher’s dogs were found to have been doped the musher would be considered responsible unless he or she could present some sort of evidence to show some other way the drugs got in the dogs.
Dallas didn’t like any of it, said he was done with Iditarod, and went off to race in Norway. He is sitting out again this year, which doesn’t help the race with that 34-year-old, male demographic Mitch asked the board about in 2017.
Up until the doping scandal, Dallas was thought to be on track to match and pass the record-setting five wins of retired champ Rick Swenson from Two Rivers.
From 2012 to 2017, Dallas won every race but two, and in 2017 the loss to his father’s record run was very close. Over the course of that six-year span, the only time Dallas was really out of contention for victory was in 2013 when he finished fourth.
Historic PR problems
All of the success came to a halt after Seavey’s dogs were found to have been doped with a pain-killing drug popular among professional cyclists.
How much the problems of Dallas and Neff have played into the Iditarod’s shrinkage this year no one can say, but everyone agrees the bad publicity can’t have helped.
Almost as many mushers – 52 – finished the race last year as are slated to start this year. The soft Alaska economy no doubt plays a role. But the last time the field was this small was in 1997.
To find a field smaller than 53, one has to go all the way back to 1989 when animal rights activists were first starting to put heavy pressure on the race.
That did not end well. The race’s decline in the 1990s in some ways parallels the present situation.
Six dogs died in the 1993 Iditarod, which set off an animal rights firestorm, and when a dog in the team of Butcher died the next year, the Humane Society, which had been working with the four-time champ, condemned the race.
As controversy grew, the Iditarod faded, but it hung on and slowly began to make a comeback. By the early 2000s, entries were once again up over 60 and growing steadily. By 2007, with 87 mushers entered, the race started worrying about the logistics of dealing with too many teams on the trail.
Rules were changed to make it harder to enter the race and the number of entries from 2009 to the present varied from a low of 62 in 2011 to a high of 85 in 2016 when the present slide began.
There were 72 in 2017, 67 in 2018 and now 53 set for 2019.
CORRECTION: An early version of this story incorrectly credited Lance Mackey with the first race of less than nine days. Martin Buser led that breakthrough.