Shrinking Idit-a-races



An Idit-a-crowd lines Anchorage’s Fourth Avenue to watch Iditarod musher leave town/David Weekly, Wikimedia Commons

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.”

Neff believes he has become the sacrificial scapegoat intended to demonstrate that long-distance sled-dog racing is trying to do more to protect the canine athletes involved.

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.

Double standards

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.”

Money issues

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. 

The Seaveys are the best of the speed racers. Dallas first lowered the race record to near eight and half days when he ran 8 days, 13 hours in 2014. Two years later, he finished in 8 days, 11 hours.

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.

No compromise

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.

Fearing they could kill the event, the late Susan Butcher of Manley, an Iditarod legend, eventually invited representatives of the Humane Society of the United States north to work with the Iditarod. 

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.

The dog food company Iams and the clothing company Timberland – then the Iditarod’s main sponsor – subsequently said they were done with the Iditarod.

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.



13 replies »

  1. My film “Sled Dogs” did not portray the darkest part of the industry and neither did I just film those few bad mushers and manipulate the public to think that those in my film represent the industry as a whole. I exposed the dark side of the industry because the commercial sled dog industry, the Iditarod and Yukon Quest is rife with animal abuse.
    “Sled Dogs” exposed the reality which has been carefully hidden from public scrutiny, of dogs who spend their lives at the end of a chain and racing 1000 miles for profit and prestige. Dogs and puppies who are routinely killed as shooting dogs is legal in most states and provinces in America and Canada.
    My film exposed dogs on the Iditarod trail, suffering from bleeding ulcers, severe dehydration and stress, dogs with high fevers, swollen and sore limbs and vets turning a blind eye and allowing the mushers to continue. At least one third of these dogs are dropped during the race and over 150 of the dogs have died while racing. No human sport where so many risk dying would be allowed to continue. But animals, they are expendable.
    The public is now beginning to question the narrative that these dogs are “super athletes” and are “bred for racing 1000 miles” and” the dogs love what they do” and you cant “force a dog to race”. And the mushers “love their dogs and treat them like family” I am not stating that all mushers are evil and don’t care about their dogs. Some do and some don”t. The mushers are ill informed and stick to the same false narrative that has been perpetuated for decades. Science has proven that the narrative is false. Dr. Rebecca Ledger and Dr. Nick Dodman, leading animal behaviorists who have studied dog behavior, state that “Sled Dogs” are dogs. They have the same needs as any other dog and just because they can withstand the cold more easily than some of the other breeds that do not have as thick a coat, does not mean that these dogs are meant to live outside chained to a spoke in the ground and raced for miles on end. Chaining any dog is both cruel and inhumane.” Dogs are pack animals and need to freely run and play, socialize with other dogs and be part of a family. It is also extremely stressful and against their nature for dogs to eat, sleep and eliminate in the same area, which they are forced to do when chained.”
    These are not assumptions, what is written above is based on science as our understanding of dogs and their behavior has grown rapidly in recent years. When we are warned to keep our dogs inside during the extreme cold or the winter or the heat of the summer, that warning needs to apply to all dogs as all dogs are not meant to withstand the extremes of weather, When I was filming, I filmed these dogs shivering from the cold and one dog died from hypothermia from a particularly cold night. The most distressing part of filming for myself and my crew was the desperation in the dogs for attention. When we would go up to the dogs and pat them, they would cry and bark continuously at us, wanting us to return and show them attention and affection,because they are so deprived of attention. I did not witness healthy, happy dogs and I filmed and visited many kennels throughout Alaska, I witnessed dogs that were at the level of “learned helplessness, which is what happens with an animal is chained throughout its life. The camera does not lie, the distress of the dogs that was portrayed in my film is the reality of this industry. I am not against dog sledding, as long and the dogs are part of a family and live with a family. Dog sledding is a fun family sport in Germany, but the dogs live at home with a family.
    The commercial sled dog industry is profit based, so dogs are treated more like a commodity that a valued member of a family. Similar to when we told that wild animals in the circuses love to perform, we now know that narrative is false, misleading and self serving. The same is true for the sled dog, they are dogs, plain and simple and the public is waking up to that fact that these dogs have been used and abused for far too long. Its time to change the narrative that these dogs are different, that they are canine athletes, that they are built to withstand the cold, that they are able to be raced for miles, that living at the end of a chain is the safest way to keep these dogs. The public is waking up to the corruption and deceit of the Iditarod and all those who are involved in this “last great race”.

  2. If the ITC can’t take a chance with Neff, how can they let Lance Mackey race? Nice guy, but he is a basket case health-wise. Had a dog die the last time he raced and needed his brother to help him out because his hands don’t work in the cold anymore. He’s bad PR ready to happen.

    • Truth spoken Hendrix. Liability. That said the crowd loves him . He has stabilized his life . New wife and baby . Gotta believe in 10 th chances . Perhaps he can upgrade his dog care to . We will see . Hopefully he has quit using illegal drugs on himself and his dogs . Hasn’t been good roll model. Tough man though. Alaska where the odds are good but goods are odd .

  3. Here is a quote from ITC Board of Directors: “After several meetings with Dallas Seavey, and review of all relevant information and evidence, the board does not believe that Dallas had any involvement with, or knowledge of, the events that led to the positive test in his team. The ITC concludes that it is not credible that Dallas was involved, and he is found to have committed no wrong doing. Whatever happened was completely beyond his control.”
    This is from e-mail received today.

    • Bill,
      After watching “Icarus” the movie and listening to podcasts by Lance Armstrong….
      I concluded that ANY attempt at enforcing Anti-Doping policies is futile and a total waste of money.
      Just look at our Nation’s failed attempt at the “War on Drugs”.
      Whoever dosed those Husky’s with Tramadol was only trying to ease their pain and suffering.
      My grandma even gets it from her Dr….says it works wonders in her 90’s.

      • “Whoever dosed those Husky’s with Tramadol was only trying to ease their pain and suffering.” Like your satire, Steve.

      • Remember guys:
        Tramadol is a Narcotic
        “It can treat moderate to severe pain.”
        Why else would it have been administered to the dogs?

      • Steve, I’m not sure we know it was “administered” to the dogs. They could have snorted it on their own. Heheh!

      • Bill: “here is a quote from the ‘NEW’ Iditarod Board of Directors.”

        not to pass judgment one way or the other, but the new Board clearly made a different judgment as to Dallas Seavey’s credibility than the old Board.

        as an old fan of professional bike racing, i’ve long thought there could be nothing worse than to be an innocent cyclist wrongly accused of doping. so maybe the new ITC Board should be hugely commended for settling this by taking Dallas at his word that he didn’t do it.

        then again, i also watched Icarus, and i can see where the old board might be skeptical.

        good movie by the way. i highly recommend it. it was suggested to me by someone associated with Iditarod doping controls in the past.

  4. The Iditarod is nothing outside of Alaska but a passing joke every now and again in some stupid sitcom. I’m not even sure why Alaskans still tolerate it.

  5. Although I agree with the ITC’s decision to ban Neff from this year’s race, I can definitely see his concerns of hypocrisy since they are allowing Keith and Mackey to race and Lance has killed two dogs in one race in the past.
    Better to explore Alaska under our own “free will” and not succumb to the corporate sponsored racing mentality with all winter spent on “training”.

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