When 57 mushers line up Sunday for the official start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, it will be the second smallest field in the past two decades. Only last year’s field of 52 was smaller.
Interest in the world’s most famous sled dog race has waned in recent years, in part because of smaller cash prizes that make it difficult for mushers to compete in an expensive sport. Animal rights activists also have stepped up pressure on sponsors to drop their support.
Now, Iditarod officials are looking to breathe new life into the competition, joining a global sled-dog racing series that features media coverage and a GPS tracking platform that they hope will appeal to fans. They are also adding a betting element for the first time this year, and plan to create some type of fantasy application for future races.
“Like many,” Iditarod CEO Rob Urbach said, “we are in a race for relevance.”
The Iditarod held its fan-friendly ceremonial start Saturday in downtown Anchorage. Mushers took selfies with spectators, who also photographed and petted some of the more than 800 dogs in town for the event.
The real race starts Sunday in Willow, about 50 miles north of Anchorage.
Nearly 1,000 miles of unforgiving terrain, doused in deep snow this year, await them as they cross two mountain ranges, travel on the frozen Yukon River and navigate the treacherous and wind-whipped Bering Sea coast to the old Gold Rush town of Nome. The winner is expected there about 10 or 11 days after the start.
“This year we’ve had a lot of snow. I won’t ever say too much snow. But it’s been a challenge to get trail put in,” race director Mark Nordman said. “It’s been a traditional colder winter, like we used to have 10 years ago.”
Five former champions are in the race, including four-time winners Martin Buser and Lance Mackey and three-time champion Mitch Seavey. Jeff King, another four-time winner, was set to run this year’s race until he underwent emergency surgery Monday for a hernia and perforated intestine. One of his dog handlers will run the team instead.
Pete Kaiser, who last year became the first Yupik contender to win the Iditarod, is back to defend his title. Kaiser, 32, said a majority of the team that pulled him to victory will be back this year, including his lead dogs, Lucy and Morrow.
The 2018 winner and last year’s runner-up by only 12 minutes, Joar Leifseth Ulsom of Norway, is also in the field. Besides Ulsom, two others from Norway are racing, along with five mushers from Canada and one each from Denmark and Italy. Last year’s top two female finishers, Jessie Royer in third and Aliy Zirkle in fourth, are also competing.
Kaiser believes the recent decrease in mushers could just be cyclical, as mushers can afford to race for only one year and then have to work to build up cash for another race. Smaller purses don’t help.
The payout to mushers who place has fallen in the past few years. Seavey pocketed $71,250 for winning 2017 race; Kaiser collected $51,299 last year.
For Kaiser, race winnings, combined with a summer job and his kennel, allow him to compete in the sport he loves.
“If any one of those things isn’t in order, then all of a sudden you feel like you’re struggling,” he said.
The Iditarod hopes for increased exposure this year by being a crowning race in the inaugural Arctic World Series, which also includes competitions in Minnesota, Finland and Russia. The series, backed by a Norwegian pet food supplement company, is designed to grow the sport’s popularity. It includes a platform that allows GPS tracking of mushers.
Mushers traditionally start the race with 14 dogs, but can drop animals that aren’t running well. A musher must cross the finish line with at least five dogs in the harness.
Prize amounts will be determined by the number of entries, with a portion going to the Iditarod.
“It’s such an esoteric event,” he said. And now that there’s negative publicity around the race, “it’s really going to be a challenge to somehow get interest in the Lower 48.
“That’s not going to help at all,” he said.