And so Stan Hooley leaves the Iditarod Trial Sled Dog Race almost exactly where he found it.
When he arrived in Alaska in 1993 to become the new executive director of the event that borrowed from a London-based writer and trademarked the title of “The Last Great Race,” animal rights activists were aggressively trying to make the 1,000-mile, Anchorage-to-Nome adventure the last race.
A field of entrants that had swelled to over 70 mushers in the mid-1980s was down to 54, and the race was which once had a $500,000 pursue was struggling to keep the total payday over $350,000.
A 36-year-old Hooley was destined to turn that all around and lead the race to new heights. By 2008, the field had swollen to a record 95 mushers and offered an $875,000 purse.
There was talk of $1 million in prize money in the future and worries about the number of mushers out growing the Iditarod’s ability to provide necessary support along the trail.
The animal rights activists who had haunted the race since the 1980s were offering only muted complaints from the warm corners of Florida and California.
Flash forward a decade to 2018 and animal rights activists are again attacking the Iditarod, the purse has fallen to about $500,000, and the field is once again down to 54 or actually 53, given the recent withdrawal from competition of Michelle Phillips from the Yukon Territory, Canada.
“That’s an interesting factoid,” Hooley said in a Friday telephone interview.
As to the animal-rights battle that greeted his arrival in Alaska, he added, “I remember that well.”
Denali Park musher Jeff King finished the 1993 Iditarod with the first of his four victories and dreams of basking in the glow of his success.
“There was talk of an appearance on the ‘David Letterman Show’ next week,” the Fairbanks News-Miner reported the day after the finish. “‘To fly all that way and have a guy embarrass you, I don’t know if I’m up to that,’ said King.”
King need not have worried. Six dogs died in the ’93 Iditarod, and the deaths attracted national attention.
King was invited to appear on the “Tonight Show” with Jay Leno, but was subsequently disinvited. The musher later told the Seattle Times he believed the “reason is that the network was cowed by protests by animal-rights activitists opposed to the sport.”
He “chafes at the mention that the 1,161-mile run from Anchorage to Nome is cruel to animals,” Times reporter Ranny Green added.
The controversy didn’t stop there.
“Are the dogs being driven too hard?” the Los Angeles Times asked in the days following the race.
“It is not reasonable to say this is hard on the dogs,” Jim Leach, the Iditarod’s chief veterinarian at the time countered to reporter Rich Roberts. “You can see these tail-waggers and how happy they are. Sure, they’re tired. But people will dwell on the deaths, and it is unfortunate. We care about every one of those dogs.”
“One of the hardest things for our sport is overcoming the Jack London stories,” added the late Susan Butcher, already an Alaska legend in the 90s. “In the old days, there probably were people that were very abusive to their dogs, but almost everybody who gets involved with dog mushing gets involved because they love dogs.”
None of it was enough to quell what would become a fire storm of protest. ABC Sports abandoned the race. Chrysler pulled out as a sponsor. King did eventually make it onto “Late Night with Conan O’Brien in 1996 after winning another Iditarod,” but was left upset by the entire affair.
“There have been a lot of things that have changed since then,” Hooley said.
A changing world
Letterman, Leno and O’Brien no longer host late-night talk shows. The Iditarod has made the race much harder to enter in the belief that better qualified mushers will help prevent dog deaths. And several races have been run without a dog dying, something veterinarians once thought statistically impossible.
But there are new problems and still the occasional dog death with all the image problems that brings.
“Another Iditarod Means Another Dead Dog” the website Deadspin headlined after the only fatality this year.
The first paragraph of the story below dredged up all the history many would like to forget. “Last year, five dogs died, and since the race began in 1973, over 150 dogs have died,” it said The story came complete with a link to the website of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
The radical animal rights group made its first appearance in a protest at the Iditarod start this year and reportedly plans to do the same next year.
Backed by a documentary film – “Sled Dogs” – that focuses on the dark side of the sled-dog business and buoyed by an increasingly urban society that shudders at the idea that anything dies, anti-Iditarod forces are better prepared and better positioned to make life tough for the race than they were 25 years ago.
Hooley didn’t exactly admit to picking a good time to leave – mainly he said, he’s departing to pursue a job opportunity that will at age 61 put “me in a better financial place” – but he admitted to looking forward to having some time to drive his motorcycle around America and escape the stress of Iditarod.
He expected, he added, that whoever replaces him is “going to have no idea of what they’re getting into….They’ll be eager and excited like I was….I went into it very naively.”
Iditarod had problems then. It might have bigger problems now. But the chief one remains the one that goes back to the very first race in 1973:
“We actually have less people on this staff now than there were in 1993,” Hooley said.
A $4.5 million per year operation, the Iditarod operates with a full-time paid staff of only about a half-dozen and a handful of paid part timers, including the race veterinarian.
“The only way we can pull this off is with a dedicated army of volunteers who come from all over the globe every year,” Hooley said. “Thankfully, we don’t have to replace many of them every year.”
That said, he added, that the Iditarod needs to grow its “human capacity. Our human capacity is nowhere near what a normal working environment is like.
“I hope that the new board can figure out a way to grow that.
“This organization needs to become successful economically. We’re in a valley not on a peak.
“(But) there’s an incredible amount of enthusiasm out there for Iditarod,” Hooley said.
The big trick comes in converting that enthusiasm into cold, hard cash. The Iditarod doesn’t take place in a stadium that can charge admission. Dog mushers don’t use a lot of products craved by modern consumers. The advertising space on sleds and snowsuits is small, not to mention that most of the race takes place out of sight of anyone.
Alaska businesses that might benefit from the cachet of being associated with Iditarod are still struggling with a recessionary economy. Outside companies must be prepared to deal with animal-rights opposition.
Iditarod entry fees can’t begin to cover the big purse top mushers now expect let alone the costly logistics of staging the race. Whoever succeeds Hooley will face the same problems faced by Hooley, who had his share of critics.
He allowed Iditarod to spend too lavishly, they said. The operation wasn’t run efficiently enough, they said. He played favorites, they said. He empowered a good, old-boy network to run the race, they said.
A man can develop a lot of critics in 25 years of trying to run a patched-together operation like Iditarod, and there is some truth to all of the accusations. There usually is.
Good, old-boy networks – even some including women – tend to develop naturally. People form groups that seem to work for them, and then hate to alter those groups.
Everybody plays favorites. No operation runs with 100 percent efficiency. And the Iditarod did spend a little lavishly at times, but then it’s hard to court well-heeled sponsors by acting like a tightwad.
Hooley heard a lot of the mumbling, but he didn’t let it get to him. It isn’t the reason he’s leaving, he said; nobody insisted he go. He just felt it was time, and he had a great offer from old college buddy.
If not for that, he said, “I’d probably be the hard-nosed, stubborn guy that would keep on fighting the good fight.”
No more, though. The fight is going to be left to someone else. From here on out, he said, Alaska is going to be his to enjoy.
He’s keeping his home in the 49th state. He plans to return regularly. He’s an avid angler. He confessed to occasionally escaping to a quiet stream was the only thing that kept him going during the worst times in the Iditarod years.
That’s all over now. Next year will offer him the first opportunity he’s known since moving to Alaska to stand on the Iditarod sidelines in Anchorage to watch the race start, enjoy and go home free of worries as to what could go wrong on down the trail.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story failed to mention Jeff Kings invitation to the Tonight Show and the subsequent disinvite, or his appearance on Conan O’Brien.