Economy taking blame for small Iditarod field

Iditarod, News, Sled dogs Add comments

It will cost more to race, and the purse is $240,000 less than it was last year

Blowback from the troubled global economy combined with a $1,000 increase in entry fees has combined to shrink the size of the field for the 2009 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race by 25 percent.

Seventy-three mushers signed up for the race from Anchorage to Nome. The list includes 51 Alaskans, six foreigners, 19 rookies and 18 women.

Nine months ago in downtown Anchorage, a record 96 mushers crowded the Fourth Avenue start chute.

Typically, several racers drop out before the race starts. Last year, for instance, the field was 110 mushers deep at the sign-up deadline.

The entry fee increased $1,000 for the 2009 race, from $3,000 to $4,000. Two years ago, it was $1,860.

And while the Iditarod’s price of admission is increasing, its purse is shrinking.

Concerns about fuel prices that were soaring just months ago, as well as rising insurance costs, contributed to the Iditarod board’s decision to raise the entry fee and reduce the purse from $900,000 in 2008 to $660,000 for 2009, though race officials are still trying to boost that.

Like last year, the winner will collect $69,000 and a new pickup truck, but the prizes for other top racers may be reduced.

Mushers have noticed.

“It just costs so much to maintain a dog team,” said Wasilla racer Kelley Griffin, who finished 45th in March in her second Iditarod but will sit out the 2009 race to rebuild her dog team. “What’s that, nearly $400 a month? That’s a mortgage payment to some people.”

Like Griffin, Jon Korta is skipping the 2009 Iditarod — mainly because of work he’s completing on the family bed and breakfast in Galena.

Still, he acknowledged, “A lot of us are looking at whether we can afford to keep doing it. The sport is super expensive, and it takes a huge commitment.”

To the north, another 1,000-mile race with a much smaller entry fee beckons. It costs just $1,500 to run the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, but the Quest purse is smaller too — the winner earns $35,000 from a $200,000 purse.

That’s enough to attract two-time Iditarod defending champion Lance Mackey, who’s seeking a record fifth-straight Quest victory, and four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser, a Quest rookie. They’re among the field of 32 mushers planning to race from Whitehorse to Fairbanks in February.

“The Yukon race is a cheaper race,” said Korta, who finish in the top 40 in his two Iditarods over the last two years. ” I could see myself doing that before coming back to the Iditarod.”

Even with a $4,000 entry fee, mushers are paying a fraction of what it costs to stage the long, cold Iditarod adventure. When last calculated, the cost per musher of putting on the Iditarod came to about $12,000, said Chas St. George, the race’s director of public relations. Sponsors and revenue from Iditarod-related enterprises make up the difference.

“These 73 are mushers with a commitment to run,” said St. George. “And we have a commitment to stage the world premier sled dog race, with a safety net that every team expects.”

St. George noted March’s race included the largest field of veterans ever, and that beginning with the 2010 Iditarod, rookies will no longer be able to complete qualifying races the same winter as their Iditarod run. Currently, they can do their mandatory qualifiers in the months just before the Iditarod. In 2010, they’ll have to qualify a year ahead.

“It’s vital that the competitors in this race are prepared to run it,” said St. George, who said he anticipates a field ranging between 65 and 80 mushers most years.

Among the last mushers to sign up is Bill Cotter of Nenana, the 63-year-old who has been running dogs since 1971 and had a streak of four top-seven finishes from 1994-97. A stroke suffered in 2005 kept him off the runners for a while. The last of his 18 Iditarod finishes came in 2004, when he finished 30th.

“I’m addicted to sled dogs and dog racing,” he told the Iditarod.

Former champions signed up for next year’s Iditarod include five-time champ Rick Swenson, four-time champions Buser and Jeff King, two-time and defending champ Mackey and 2004 champion Mitch Seavey.

In an effort to help the 17 rookies entered this year reach Nome, a mandatory two-day rookie meeting begins today at the Millenium Alaska Hotel and continues Sunday at Buser’s dog lot in Big Lake. Rookies from as far away as Blairstown, N.J., and as nearby as Eagle River are attending.

Source: The Anchorage Daily News

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

WP Theme & Icons by N.Design Studio
Entries RSS Comments RSS Log in