Alaska’s biggest sporting events have yet to hit the trail and already there is a doping controversy.
This time it involves the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada. Dogs in the team of Quest musher Brian Wilmhurst from Dawson City, Yukon last year produced markers for a drug sometimes used as a painkiller.
The Quest’s board decided the drug had most likely come from contaminated horse meat fed the dogs, docked Wilmhurst the $3,262.10 he’d won for finishing 13th among the 27 finishers in the 2019 race, and closed the case.
In a letter to the Quest, the committee charged that Wilmhurst was “able to ‘buy himself out of’ a positive drug test by paying back his winnings.”
Those who know Wilmhurst best are skeptical that he would dope a dog to finish 13th among the27 mushers in the 2019 race. One described him as an affable stoner who runs dogs for fun. He’s never won a race, according to his kennel web page, but has collected two red lanterns.
In 2015, he ran the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race – an event considered significantly more competitive than the Quest – and finished 52nd.
He did not respond to a request for comment, which was not a surprise. No one involved with Alaska sled dog sports wants to talk publicly about doping although there is a lot of talk privately.
The drug identified by the Quest is ketamine, an anesthetic often referred to as a “horse tranquilizer.” It was developed for use on humans in the 1960s and remains in use in emergency rooms and field hospitals around the globe, according to Dr. Steve Levine of Actify, a mental health treatment facility.
The drug is used in the mental health field to treat depression, but the drug is probably best known for its use on the street as a club and “date rape” drug.
“Special K” or “K” comes “comes in tablet or powder form,” according to the website Healthy Place, and can be “snorted up the nose, placed in alcoholic drinks, or smoked in combination with marijuana.
“Ketamine has hallucinatory effects. Similar to LSD, the effects of Ketamine are altered according to the user’s mood and environment.”
In canines, it is not used to send Fido on a trip, but instead to relieve pain. It has shown up regularly in greyhounds where doping to increase performances has been a serious and ongoing problem.
The drug is usually injected, but is also prescribed in the form of creams, gels and liquids to rubbed on the skin to ease pain, especially nerve pain. “Ketamine works by interfering with the central nervous system,” VetInfo says.
“Because ketamine is such a powerful drug, it is hardly ever sent with pet owners to be given at home. Transdermal patches may be sent home with pet owners, however, and this has become a popular form of pain relief.”
Alaska veterinarians say ketamine is nowhere near as popular here, however, as Rimadyl, the Aleve of the dog world, or as popular as tramadol, a synthetic opioid, was before the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in 2014 classified it as a controlled substance.
Tramadol is the pain killer that landed four-time Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champion Dallas Seavey in so much trouble in 2017.
It has never been determined how that drug got into Seavey’s team in Nome that year. The second-place finisher in 2017, he continues to insist that his dogs were somehow sabotaged, but there has never been any evidence found to indicate that.
Publicly many of his competitors have supported him; privately many admit to being suspicious.
At a meeting of mushers, race officials and members of the race’s anti-doping team after the 2018 race, Seavey – who did not race that year – expressed anger that he was being singled out for tramadol – an over-the-counter drug in Europe where it has been regularly used by professional cyclists – when everyone knew other mushers were prepping their dogs with more potent performance-enhancing drugs.
Following that meeting, Iditarod sacked Morrie Craig, the head of its anti-doping program, and eventually apologized to Seavey for identifying him as the musher whose team was found doped in Nome despite the lack of evidence that anyone else might have been involved.
Craig, in consultation with authorities on the metabolism of tramadol in canines, later compiled a report concluding that all the evidence indicated that the drug were most likely given within an hour of the drug test in Nome. That timeline would have put Seavey representatives with the dogs at the time the drugs were administered.
The Iditarod refused to review the report, and most of the volunteers in the drug-testing team that worked with Craig quit before the 2019 race. The Iditarod has yet to appoint a new anti-doping director, and some of the old team members described the drug-testing the race carried out last year as a sham, although Iditarod claims it was a state-of-the-art effort.
Seavey, for his part, remains angry at Iditarod and has not been back in the race since he became the only musher in race history to be publicly identified as in charge of doped dogs.
More than a half-dozen sources formerly with the Iditarod doping program have told craigmedred.news there were multiple other positives before that, and in a meeting with former Iditarod executive director Stan Hooley, chief race veterinarian Stuart Nelson Jr, and race director Mark Nordman, Nordman admitted there had been past positive tests – all linked to contaminated meat, he said – while Nelson was claiming there had never been a positive drug test before Seavey.
The confusion might have been related to the Iditarod rules which stipulate that even if drugs are found in the urine of an Iditarod dog, the test is not a “positive” unless the Iditarod board of directors declares it a positive.
As with Wilmhurst in the Quest, most past Iditarod drug positives have been written off as the result of contaminated meat fed the dogs.
Costly, embarrassing, problematic
Given the costs of anti-doping programs, the relatively small number of truly competitive mushers with an incentive to dope their dogs, and the negative publicity spawned by the Seavey fiasco, some have suggested that Alaska’s biggest dog races – the Iditarod and the Quest – should simply get out of the anti-doping business.
The Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race in Western Alaska – a race this year boasting a purse of $160,000, $60,000 more than that of the Quest – has only one drug rule: “No injectable substances may be used on any dog at any point during the race.”
The Kusko 300 starts an ends in Bethel, a remote community of about 6,100 people approximately 400 air miles west of Anchorage and just about as far from any part of the limited Alaska road system.
Other mid-distance races also forgo drug testing and seem to do fine without it.
Sled-dog racing is not the Tour de France or major league baseball or the NFL. Size-wise, it is smaller than the Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP), which sponsors tournaments in eight U.S. cities from May 1 to Sept. 20.
The first of those events this year, the Huntington Beach Open from May 1 to 3, promises a $200,000 purse split evenly between male and female competitors. That climbs to $300,000 for the AVP Gold Series, New York City Open, in June.
All told, the events boast $1.8 million in prize money split equally between the men’s and women’s divisions over the course of the season.
The Iditarod this year has a “$500,000 To Be Determined” purse, according to the race rules, the Quest a fifth of that.
Before Rick Swenson left the Iditarod’s board and disappeared from the statewide mushing scene, he noted the high cost of the doping program and the limited results. The Iditarod’s only five-time winner, Swenson was around when the program was instituted in the 1980s with many mushers fearful doping had spun out of control.
The program appeared to be effective in its early year, although the mushers who were caught doping their dogs were never identified. As sports doping became every sophisticated in the years that followed, however, the Iditarod’s program remained stuck in an earlier time.
Some of the volunteers who worked for Craig have said it was pretty clear to them some teams were racing faster through chemistry, but no one ever got caught until Seavey and then nothing became of it save for Craig’s dismissal.
The former doping police, however, also agree that overall the doping problem in long-distance sled dog racing is relatively small given that the majority of mushers are like the Quest’s Wilmhurt.
They’re not competing to win a truckload of prize money or a few minutes of fame. They’re just trying to get from the race’s start line to the finish. The $3,200 Wilmhurt won and then lost in the Quest would cover the costs of his 35 sled dogs for only a few weeks if that.
Mushers figure on an annual expense of about $2,000 per dog per year to cover food, housing, veterinary costs and incidentals. The sport makes little economic sense, and most of the people in it are there for the adventure, the challenge or “fun,” which is a tough thing to define.
Eighty percent of them are no more competitive than your average recreational runner in the local 5K, and no one worries about doping there, which is not to say he or she couldn’t be doping.
Drugs are an American way of life.