Shades of Iditarod


Medina Spirit, the doped horse in the Kentucky Derby spotlight/Kentucky Derby photo

The doped racehorse that won the Kentucky Derby on May 1 is on the verge of being disqualified, and the horse’s trainer is suggesting his race was sabotaged.

Where have we heard this story before?

Horse racing Hall of Fame trainer Bob “Baffert was not ready to lodge specific accusations Sunday morning at Churchill Downs,” Louiseville Courier-Journal columnist Tim Sullivan wrote Monday, “but the general theme of his comments was someone has been trying to frame him for deeds he didn’t do.”

Maybe Churchill Downs needs to launch one of those first-class investigations into the case like the one the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race conducted after drug testers found the team of four-time champ Dallas Seavey doped on tramadol in Nome in 2017.

You remember that investigation, right?

The one that needed only one witness – Seavey – to clean things up. He ranted on YouTubecried on the shoulders of friendly Alaska reporters, had his PR firm announce he’d rather race in Norway than Alaska because of the way he was treated, and so the Iditarod Trail Committee (ITC) concluded he must not have doped the dogs.

End of story.

The ITC didn’t even bother to look at a report long-time, anti-doping director Morrie Craig had put together with a group of national doping exports who concluded Seavey’s dogs were given the tramadol – a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory and pain killer – within an hour, or maybe less, of being tested in Nome.

Instead of investigating, the ITC dumped Craig like a hot potato.


The timeline for the Iditarod doping was important because Seavey’s then-wife and now ex-wife,  Jen, was reported to be in the dog lot in Nome for at least an hour before the test, and it’s pretty hard to believe she wouldn’t have noticed any pesky animal rights activists sneaking around slipping tramadol to the huskies.

The journalistic fanboys (and girls) who cover Alaska’s self-proclaimed “Last Great Race,” unfortunately, pursued that story with all the enthusiasm of slugs on sedatives. One even privately admitted he wasn’t doing anything because he didn’t want to make trouble for the revered Alaska event.

Others appeared happy to believe People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) or one of its sympathizers had been able to slip a secret operative into Nome at the end of the race to dope Seavey’s second-place team.

Why PETA would go to the trouble to dope the team of the runner-up instead of the winner, who was getting a lot more attention, was a question the mainstream never asked.

Even after Seavey offered conflicting stories about tramadol – first he claimed not to know what it was, later he admitted it had been kept in his kennel but said Jen handled all the dog doctoring – Alaska reporters trod lightly.

Old-school journalism

Poor Baffert doesn’t seem to be getting nearly the same kid-glove treatment from the Lower 48 media that Seavey did from the Alaska media.

“Bob Baffert is trying to sell ‘sabotage’ to an audience conditioned to skepticism,” the Courier-Journal headlined Sullivan’s report.

Skepticism? Among journalists today? Sacre bleu!

Then again, there appear good reasons to be skeptical of Baffert’s claim. Horses he trained are reported to have failed 31 drug tests – for which Baffert has been largely able to dodge any serious consequences – and his horses win a lot.

Over the years, Baffert-trained horses have claimed seven Derby wins. In his defense, it is worth noting those seven victories might make him a target for jealous competitors.

“I’m not a conspiracy theorist,” Baffert told reporters who swarmed around him in a press conference in Barn 33 at the Downs track. “I know. Nope. Not everybody is out to get me, but there’s definitely something wrong.

“Why does this happen, you know, to me?”

Clean as a whistle

“Why me” is the same question Seavey was asking only a few years ago.

Until his whole team failed its drug test, not a single Seavey dog had ever failed a test. Not a dog in the teams of Dallas. Not a dog in the teams of his father, Mitch, a three-time Iditarod champ.

Not a single dog, in fact, in any mushers’ team in any race going back to the start of the Iditarod drug-testing program in the last century had ever failed a drug test. Or at least no such positive tests were ever publicly revealed by the ITC.

And none have been reported since the Seavey debacle.

Meaning either the Iditarod is the cleanest endurance sport in the world, or it is the one with the worst drug-testing program. There is more evidence to support the latter conclusion than the former.

The race’s doping manual is pretty much a guide on how to avoid being caught with doped dogs. If Baffert had followed it (presuming his horse wasn’t sabotaged), he would have known exactly how long it would take for betamethasone – a powerful, steroidal, anti-inflammatory drug – to clear from the blood of Derby winner Medina Spirit.

The Iditarod doping manual makes a big deal of drug “clearance times.”

“Clearance Times utilizing ‘older’ technology, could result in a positive drug test,” it says. “In this era, for mushers to protect their dogs from a positive drug test, it is generally recommended that all medications containing prohibited substances be discontinued at least TWO WEEKS (Iditarod emphasis) prior to the race start, with the exception of ‘long-acting,’ injectable products, i.e., Betasone, DepoMedrol, Vetalog and others, which should be discontinued at least FOUR WEEKS (Iditarod emphasis) prior to the race, for sufficient Clearance Times.”

A curious reporter might want to know why this advice is needed if the Iditarod is as drug-free as race organizers have tried to portray it, but there aren’t many curious reporters left in Alaska.

If there were, somebody would be seriously digging into an Iditarod anti-doping program that somehow never finds any dope. This is not natural.

Better living through chemistry is a competitive reality around the world today. A poll by Cycling Weekly found one in 20 serious British cyclists – amateurs who regularly raced – admit to doping.

Almost half – 48 percent – said they did it to “win for prestige,” and another 19 percent did it to “rank higher relative to rivals.”

And one is to believe no one would dope for the prestige of winning the Iditarod, the biggest sporting event in Alaska? This is hard to believe given that there are plenty of Iditarod mushers who think their competition is or was doping.

‘Fact of life’

Against this backdrop, consider the words once seven-time Tour de France champ Lance Armstrong wrote in his 2000 book “It’s Not About the Bike” before all the Tour victories were taken away:

“Doping is an unfortunate fact of life in cycling, or any other endurance sport for that matter. Inevitably, some teams and riders feel it’s like nuclear weapons – that they have to do it to stay competitive within the peloton. I never felt that way, and certainly the idea of putting anything foreign in my body was especially repulsive.”

“Doping is an unfortunate fact of life in…any…endurance sport….”

True enough.

It is such an unfortunate fact of life that other mushers say Dallas’s biggest complaint about getting busted for dogs juiced on tramadol – a small-time, nonsteroidal pain killer and anti-inflammatory –  is that everyone knew other mushers were using more potent drugs and nothing happened.

Aside from Dallas’s doped team, there is no evidence Seavey dogs were ever doped, but according to Belgian Dr. Sam Deltour, Dallas’s dad, Mitch, thought a lot of other mushers were doping.


Deltour was a former competitive athlete and medical student still in training to be a doctor when he worked as a dog handler for Mitch prior to running a Seavey team of dogs in the 2010 Iditarod. Deltour knew a bit about performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), and he had a lot of talks with Mitch about doping, he admitted in a 2018 conversation.

But he made it clear he never witnessed any doping while at the Seavey kennel.

When Deltour was working there, Mitch was six years on from his breakthrough, 2004 Iditarod victory and looking like another of those Iditarod victors – Emmitt Peters, Joe May,  Dick and Rick Mackey, Libby Riddles, Dean Osmar, Joe Runyan and John Baker – who no matter how good as dog trainers and drivers were destined to go one and done in Iditarod.

After Deltour went home to Belgium, however, the Seavey family started on a six-year-long Iditarod winning streak: Dallas in 2012, Mitch in 2013, Dallas in 2014, Dallas and Mitch one and two in 2015 and again in 2016, and then swapping places in 2017 when it was Mitch number one and Dallas number two.

That six-year run, the longest in Iditarod history, ended with the doping scandal that followed the 2017 race. Dallas announced he was done with competing in an event that had decided to persecute him. Mitch ran again in 2018 but dropped to third and then ninth in 2019 before bouncing back to challenge for victory in 2020 only to end up second.

This year he hung up his boots and put the full power of Team Seavey behind Dallas, who proceeded to notch win number five to tie the legendary Rick Swenson as the winningest musher in Iditarod history.

Some other mushers have long suspected Swenson and arch-rival Susan Butcher, another Iditarod legend and four-time winner, were doing a little dog juicing themselves when they dominated The Last Great Race in the 1980s.

The evidence to support those suspicions is thin, but given there were plenty of mushers experimenting with drugs at the time, it might have seemed natural enough to give them to the dogs, too.

There is some history here. The late George Attla – Alaska’s most famous sprint musher – used to get his dogs pumped up on caffeine, which has now been shown to be an effective performance-boosting drug. 

Race dominance

Swenson and Butcher, who died in 2006, won nine of the 15 races from 1977 to 1991 and in three more they chased the winner into Nome, putting one or the other of that duo in the top two for 12 of 15 Iditarods.

And those second places included a 1978 race with a finish so close there was some debate as to who won. Dick Mackey’s lead dog crossed the line first, but Swenson’s sled beat Mackey’s across.

It was decided the first dog to cross wins the race although the race starts with the sled, not the lead dog, on the starting line. There was no controversy about the decision.

The Iditarod was in ’78 an event known little outside of Alaska, and there was little reason for anyone to get overly excited about the ruling or to dope to win, although 1976 champ Jerry Riley blamed steroids for the death of two dogs in the 1981 race. The dogs were on loan from another musher who Riley said did the doping.

It wasn’t until 985 after  Riddles, a young and attractive blonde, dramatically mushed through a blizzard to beat all the men to Nome.

Riddles’ achievement earned her a spread in Vogue magazine and exploded the race onto the global stage. All of a sudden winning Iditarod was a much, much bigger deal than it had been before.

Still, the Iditarod’s anti-doping program didn’t began until a decade later with the brothers Swingley – Greg and Doug – from Montana burning up Lower-48 sled dog trails.

Greg beat some Alaskans to win the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon along Minnesota’s North Shore for the first time in 1992 when that race was becoming prominent, and Doug the same year led the Iditarod to halfway before dropping to 10th in Nome.

The rookie of the year in his first race, Doug would improve every year until he won in ’95. Four years later, he ripped off a string of three straight victories that left Alaska mushers talking openly about their suspicions he was doping. Swingley said he wasn’t, and his dogs – like all the rest of the dogs in all of the Iditarods except one – never failed a test.

Fallible infallible tests

It was a time when drug tests were widely considered to be the be-all to end-all for catching dopers. It wasn’t until former Armstrong lieutenant Floyd Landis started to spill his guts on his old boss in 2010 that it became obvious how fallible drug-testing systems, and how widespread doping in sports.

Five years later, the Russian doping scandal began to unfold to show how pervasive doping in Olympic sports and how much could be covered up if there existed a bureaucratic entity that wanted to hide things. 

It is, of course, possible that someone did sabotage Dallas’s team and that every Iditarod musher in history has successfully avoided the temptation to use performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) so as to preserve the Last Great Race’s place as the epitome of pure sport unsoiled by doping  – as the race organizers contend – but those who were most deeply involved with the drug program Craig ran don’t believe it.

Neither do some of the mushers. And it stretches the imagination to believe none of them ever reached the conclusion that the only way to compete for victory was to dope.

As Landis so famously observed of his own journey into the world of PEDs, “it was either cheat or get cheated. And I’d rather not be the guy getting cheated.”

There are obviously those involved in the sport of horse racing who reached that same conclusion.

Over the years, doping racehorses has become such a widely recognized problem that Congress in December overwhelmingly approved the Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Act as part of the COVID-19 relief package.

The act, which takes effect in July, lays out a plan for “developing and implementing a horse racing anti-doping, end-medication program and a racetrack safety program…,” according to the Thoroughbred Daily News, which foresees “sweeping changes for a sport that has been rocked by recent doping scandals and has come under fire from animal rights activists and media outlets over equine fatalities on the racetrack.

“Once the Act goes into effect, drug testing and the policing of the sport will be turned over from the individual state racing commissions to the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). USADA has an impressive track record and it is widely believed that it will be more effective in catching and punishing cheaters than the current system. All medication and safety rules will be standardized nationwide.”

Canines exempted

The USADA, which took down Armstrong and a goodly number of his cycling teammates, has run down a lot of dopers. Its involvement in horse racing might not totally end doping – it’s amazing the things people will do to win money and fame – but the agency is almost certain to take a bite out of horse-racing crime.

There is, however, no similar legislation covering dog racing no matter whether the canines in question are greyhounds still racing on the fast disappearing tracks of the Lower 48 or huskies racing on the trails of Alaska.

Enforcement of Iditarod anti-doping rules will remain the purview of the ITC which has nothing to gain by catching a doper and potentially much to lose.

The good-looking, well-spoken, 34-year-old Dallas – a reality TV star when he’s not racing dogs – is seen by many as the face of a new generation of mushers who can change “the demographic of our audience from 60-year-old women to 34-year-old men” as his father has put it. 

Thirtysomething men are thought to offer the best potential to grow the race’s still rather small audience, and Iditarod needs to grow its audience to attract sponsors to pay its bills.

The Derby has an almost opposite problem. It has a huge audience, which wants a clean race. That puts the kind of spotlight on the Derby of which the ITC can only dream, but the attention is a double-edged sword.

It leads people to ask questions, and the Iditarod has been lucky in that there haven’t been many people asking questions.















12 replies »

  1. Great piece, love your work. One correction though, Tramadol is an opioid analgesic, not an NSAID—which makes it even scummier in this situation because there is no anti-inflammatory component. Not treating the cause of pain, like people might pop an Advil before or after a run. Just literally blocking the signal of pain to the dog’s brain, allowing it to push through injury it would otherwise protect.

    • It’s not an opioid. It’s a synthetic alternative to opioids.

      It is without a doubt a pain killer and can thus be useful in aiding performance. It also been shown to inhibit inflammation:

      It is not a NSAID. I hope I didn’t write that in the story. I’ll go back and look and if so correct it. Tramadol is also a drug vets once handed out like pet candy.

      • Tramadol is certainly an opioid. An opioid is a synthetic opiate. There is certainly a spectrum of organic to synthetic opiates, and though Tramadol is fully synthetic, along with Methadone and Fentanyl, its mechanism class of action is fundamentally the same, by blocking the receptor site of pain sending neurons.

        “Tramadol is an opioid analgesic and opioid activity is the overriding contributor to its pharmacological effects. Abuse and adverse events of tramadol are similar to those of other opioid analgesics.”

        It is certainly not the most potent opioid (as listed on the Morphine Milligram Equivalence) to be sure. But then, I don’t know the dose relative to the dog’s weight/metabolism/etc—as they say, the dose determines the poison. And if it’s as common as candy…in any case, it was enough to flag a tox screen.

        It may well have additional pain-mediated anti-inflammatory properties, as you referenced. In any case, that’s not the primary mechanism of action, and “as of August 18, 2014, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has officially placed tramadol, a centrally acting opioid analgesic, into schedule IV of the Controlled Substances Act.” I’m also not convinced that he (allegedly, yada yada) was after the anti-inflammatory side of it, is there are other drugs that reduce information without including narcotics.

        I just want to make the distinction clear for anyone feeling like his was a minor infraction. I may appear to be caught in semantics, but work in the pain management side of healthcare and see so. much. confusion over these drugs. I mean I have patients that don’t know the difference between Tylenol and Advil. Calling tramadol a “nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory,” while both of those descriptors may be accurate, together identify it to the NSAID class, and softens the truth of how fucking terrible it is that people (apparently) need to drug their dogs with narcotics in order to do this damn race. When discussing the legality of drugs in the public realm, I feel it is important to make a very clear distinction that this is not a simple over the counter med—though perhaps, and maybe because, vets have treated it that way in the past.

        I appreciate the work you’ve done, asking the right questions about the Seavey scandal, and broadly, attempting to bring some accountability to the sled dog racing scene. When I asked some old timers who have been around since the first Iditarod, they said, “he’s doing the same shit everyone has always done. He just got caught,” and “that’s the way it’s always been. You think this race is about the dogs? It’s never been about the dogs.” But no one speaks publicly about it. Thank you for doing that, and for shining the spotlight on the horse industry as well. There are plenty of roaches to be scattered there as well.

    • Betamethasone is just an anti-inflammatory, a trillionth of gram, which is about what they found, could possibly show on a test from using the ointment. They should of read the ingredients. They could of just used a simple $4 zinc based diaper ointment on the rash to be on the safe side. Bad on the vet for not being cautious, or the help for using it, unless they had a joint injection or such done inside the 14 days allowed and are using the ointment to cover themselves. I would say, show me the rash. “ This is something I wouldn’t normally request btw, but it’s a horse” See this is why you read the ingredients, because there will always be doubt. Too high of stakes lots of money down the drain, of course there’s always that stud fee to make it up with, especially if he was having joint problems.

      • Don’t you think a trainer of Baffert’s caliber, who has been in trouble for doping many times before, would know the ingredients? I’d expect it more likely you hit on what happened with the “cover” hypothesis than with the accidental one.

      • Craig….Yes I do believe they would of known. I know before shows we would all know not to even use anything that would even remotely show as a carrier on a drug test. From leg wrapping to ointments, even feed additives and also how many days up to the event you could push bute or banimine for sore muscles and inflammation for it to be out of their system in time.

        A joint injection isn’t a bad thing, just the timing of having to do one is. Maybe Medina is running good and looks good, then all of a sudden on day 10 before the Derby he shows a problem, so they roll the dice. Inject him, or scratch him. Either way Money is lost, but he still won even if his title is pulled. The amount that was in him was very low, so they almost squeaked by.

        I could be totally off base too, maybe there was no injection or such. Those horses are handled by a lot of people. Such as the assistant trainers, exercise people, jockeys, grooms, and so on. Sometimes people grab something they’ve always used and slip of the mind use something that might not be allowed. Of course ole Baffert does seem to be on quite the roll of incidents.

  2. “The man who tells the truth is driven from nine villages.” (Old proverb)

  3. What a pleasant story. Cheat or be cheated. Yeah i heard about morrie craig . He did his job , caught Dallas , informed musher wade marrs his tests were positive also . Wade is heavily sponsored by a drug company allegedly who his wife supposedly works for . and Iditarod fires the drug tester. “ dont do your job quite so well next time please” Dallas seavey was pretty clear with the media. He refused to race again under the Iditarod board who held him responsible for the test . He stated the only reason hes back to Iditarod is because its a new board. “ why me he says” Mitch was even more straightforward. Get rid of morey Craig or seaveys wont be back . ( “well son of a gun look who got fired” ) Yep baffert must have been watching the seaveys pretty close . Huh so thats how you handle bad publicity and positive tests . “ sabotage “ and pr firms . Well hopefully all the mushers are doping so it will be an even feild . If there are any honest mushers they are getting hosed. Apparently there is no longer a professional drug testing organization over seeing Iditarod and the tests are only reviewed by people who have inherent reason to keep a lid on it . It’s pretty impressive that Dallas is poster boy for Iditarod. I wonder how thsts going to work out for attraction of sponsorship and viewers. ( Doper wins Iditarod) “ sponsor us please” oh for the days of Libby riddles “ the attractive blond” yeah Iditarod is a great example for the younger generation. Cheat or be cheated.

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