ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- The world's foremost sled dog race kicks off its 47th running this weekend as participants strive to push past a punishing two years for the sport's image.
Some of the drama has been resolved for Alaska's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. In December, race organizers cleared four-time winner Dallas Seavey of any wrongdoing in a 2017 dog-doping scandal. New members also have been appointed to the Iditarod's governing board following musher discontent over perceived conflicts.
But animal activists are turning up the heat over multiple dog deaths in the history of the 1,000-mile (1,600-kilometer) race, which spans mountain ranges, the frozen Yukon River and dangerous sea ice along the Bering Sea coast, with village checkpoints staged across the trail. Big-name sponsors continue to drop their support, and have been replaced by smaller, Alaska-based backers. And organizers still grapple with budget strains manifested in a purse far below the prizes offered in the recent past.
The expected top prize is $50,000, the same amount as last year, but more than $20,000 below the 2017 prize. The total purse is again $500,000 — about $250,000 below the 2017 purse. The prize money comes from sponsors and other sources, including fundraisers, special promotions and the Iditarod Insider, a paid online subscription that provides race coverage.
The Iditarod has survived similar pressures, said Chas St. George, acting CEO of the Iditarod Trail Committee.
"We have a bright future as long as we stay committed to and focused on what's in the best interest of the sled dogs and in the best interest of the communities that are part of this race, that step up every year to make this happen," said St. George, who is filling in at the helm while the board seeks a replacement for longtime CEO Stan Hooley, who departed in January.
In December, Hooley said he was leaving after 25 years with the Iditarod to take on a new opportunity outside the state, but added he was not at liberty to say what it was. He said his departure had nothing to do with the Iditarod coming off a difficult time.
Earlier pressure from activists led to the sport addressing "past imperfections," said four-time champion Jeff King.
"The last couple years have been very trying for many," he said. "But in the end, I think there will be good that comes out of it."
The Iditarod begins Saturday with a short ceremonial run in Anchorage, the state's largest city. The real race to the old Gold Rush town of Nome starts Sunday in Willow, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) to the north.
The 52-team field — the smallest in more than two decades — includes defending champion Joar Ulsom, of Norway, along with King and two other four-time winners and a three-time champion. St. George said he doesn't believe the number of competitors is indicative of any trend. But the economy could play a role because of the big expense involved in mushing, and St. George said some mushers have retired or are taking time off or racing elsewhere.
That is the case with Seavey, who has adamantly denied giving the opioid painkiller tramadol to his dogs during the 2017 Iditarod.
Seavey skipped last year's race in protest, competing instead in Norway's Finnmarkslopet race. He said he's going back to this year's Finnmarkslopet, which starts about a week after the Iditarod, because of unfinished business after placing third last year.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a longtime Iditarod critic, plans to protest at both starting points. By PETA's count, more than 150 dogs have died in the race, including one last year. Five dogs connected with the 2017 race also died.
The total number of deaths is disputed by race officials, who cannot provide their own count because they say no records of dog deaths were kept in the Iditarod's early years. St. George didn't immediately respond to a request Friday morning for the number of dog deaths they have counted.
For this year's race, PETA posted ads on Anchorage public buses that say, "Iditarod: Chained, suffering and dying dogs. End the race." PETA maintains the dogs are forced to run and are subjected to cruel conditions that leave them with bloody paws, stress fractures and other injuries.
"This race is an annual tragedy. It's nothing more than organized animal abuse," PETA spokeswoman Colleen O'Brien said in an email to The Associated Press.
Mushers and race officials say great strides have been made in animal care, thanks largely to the Iditarod, the mushers themselves and an army of veterinarians stationed at every checkpoint along the trail.
This year's race, for example, incorporates a new rule that requires mushers be automatically be removed from the race if a dog dies, unless the death is caused by an unpreventable hazard like a moose encounter.
The lifestyle of keeping and training sled dogs year-round actually enhances the animals' lives, contrary to critics' claims, said veteran musher Matthew Failor, who is running his eighth Iditarod.
"You're never going to get rid of PETA," he said. "Those are extremists, just like dog mushers are extremists. We love our dogs as much as they don't want dogs to pull you around."
But PETA has also increased its pressure on Iditarod sponsors, targeting them with mass email campaigns. Given the Iditarod's strong name recognition outside Alaska, even the perception of animal mistreatment could be a "big brand hit," according to branding expert Bob Dorfman of Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco.
Pressure from a prominent organization like PETA could make sponsors think twice, according to Dorfman.
"If they have a legitimate case, it's going to be very difficult to say, 'OK, I'm backing this,' because in a sense, you're backing cruelty to animals," he said.
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