By Yereth Rosen
ANCHORAGE, Ala. (Reuters) - The world’s most famous dog race is mired in a doping scandal, under pressure from animal-rights activists and coping with a drop in revenue. Still, the show will go on: Alaska’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race starts on Saturday.
Sixty-seven mushers and their dog teams are due to gather in Anchorage for the ceremonial start of the 1,000-mile race. After what will likely be a leisurely 11-mile trot through Alaska’s biggest city, timed competition begins on Sunday in Willow, an 80-mile drive north.
The winner is expected in Nome, a Gold Rush town on the Bering Sea, eight days later.
The race is a tribute to a life line of mushers and dogs who carried supplies to remote outposts in the early days of Alaska's non-aboriginal settlements. The most famous of those missions was in 1925, when a relay of teams completed a "Serum Run" delivering a supply of antitoxin to Nome for children stricken by a diphtheria epidemic.
Notably absent from the starting line this year will be four-time champion musher Dallas Seavey, the Iditarod star at the center of the dog-drugging scandal.
At the end of last year’s race, in which Seavey finished second, his dogs tested positive for a banned opioid. Seavey was not punished. Iditarod officials said information was too sketchy to prove deliberate misconduct and race rules were too vague to justify discipline.
Seavey has proclaimed his innocence, accusing race officials of botching test protocols and alleging that his dogs were doped in an act of sabotage.
He is boycotting this year’s Iditarod, racing instead in Norway’s long-distance Finnmarksløpet. He has called for several Iditarod officials to resign, retained an attorney and hired a public relations firm to try to clear his name.
“This is the only thing I do. This is my career. This is my entire life,” he said in an Anchorage Daily News interview before leaving for Norway.
Seavey is a third-generation racer and second-generation champion. His father, Mitch Seavey, won his third victory last year.
The Iditarod has lost a major sponsor, Wells Fargo, and others have reduced contributions, cutting its total purse to $500,000 from almost $750,000 last year.
Animal-rights activists are increasing pressure on the race, citing deaths of four dogs in last year’s competition and what they deem to be cruel, year-round practices by Iditarod mushers.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is planning to protest Saturday’s start, Iditarod officials said.
“It’s a hard pill for me to swallow when somebody’s trying to take down this event that we all so dearly love,” race director Mark Nordman said at a Wednesday press conference.
Vern Halter, a former Iditarod musher and now mayor of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough north of Anchorage, said the race is due for reforms, but for the next couple of weeks, he said, concerns can be put aside.
“I just hope all the mushers forget about this stuff and travel to Nome the best they can and have fun,” he said.
(Editing by Steve Gorman)