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ANCHORAGE - Hundreds of sled dogs and thousands of fans lined up along Anchorage's Fourth Avenue on Saturday for the ceremonial start of the 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
The dogs leaped and barked when it was their turn to leave the downtown chute for an 11-mile run across Anchorage. Mushers ran with 12 dogs instead of the 16-dog teams they'll use when the actual competition starts today in Willow, about 50 miles to the north.
Seventy-one teams are entered in the trek to Nome. More than a third of the mushers are from seven other countries and nine other states.
Defending champion Lance Mackey is seeking his fourth consecutive win. The 39-year-old Fairbanks resident, among five past Iditarod winners in this year's field, signed autographs and posed with fans as he made last-minute checks on his dogs. He said he's hoping to reach Nome first - if that's what his dogs are up for.
"I won't be disappointed if I come in third or 23rd, as long as my team looks happy and healthy doing it," he said. "If I get to Nome and I question 'Well, what if I had done this, or what if I had done that,' then I'd be disappointed."
Also running is Hans Gatt, who in February became a four-time winner of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. Mackey also has won that race four times.
The 38th running of the Iditarod is the first time in race history in which mushers will be tested for drugs and alcohol somewhere along the trail, with disqualification among possible penalties. The sled dogs have been tested for prohibited substances since 1994.
Mackey, a throat cancer survivor, has acknowledged using medical marijuana in past races. He said he'll abide by the drug rule, which has existed in some form since 1984 but never enforced.
Another first this year is the entry of the first Jamaican in the Iditarod. Newton Marshall, a 26-year-old resident of St. Anne Parish, completed the Yukon Quest last year as a rookie and has been training with Mackey this winter to get ready for the Iditarod.
His team's main sponsor, Margaritaville icon Jimmy Buffett, wished him luck in an e-mail Saturday.
After all the trial runs, Marshall said he was feeling confident and ready to begin the real race.
"I hear the scenery is very lovely," he said. "You know, I'm all about that."
Iditarod officials say staging the race is more challenging following a loss of almost $1 million in funding after major sponsors dropped their support and video deals collapsed.
The total purse this year is $590,000 - down from a high of $925,000 in 2008 - with $50,000 of this year's prize money donated by four-time champion Jeff King, who also is in the running. The winner's take is $50,000, compared with the $69,000 of past years.
The winner still receives a new Dodge truck.
More than anything else, what Scottish rookie Wattie McDonald wants is the Iditarod belt buckle awarded to every first-timer who completes the race. On hand to cheer on the 46-year-old Stonehaven resident with his dream Saturday were family and friends from home, braving subfreezing temperatures in kilts. McDonald also wore a kilt and his dogs wore red tartan coats in their ceremonial run.
"Belt buckle is mine," McDonald proclaimed. "Anything else is a bonus."