ANCHORAGE - A century after the birth of long-distance sled dog racing, 16 mushers are set to retrace a historic run in western Alaska and compete for a $100,000 winner-take-all purse.
The All Alaska Sweepstakes begins Wednesday, launching a 408-mile round trip from Nome, an old gold rush town best known as the finish line of the 1,100-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race held earlier this month.
In a departure from that famous race, however, the lucrative sweepstakes is allowing the participation of an Iditarod musher serving a two-year suspension for abusing his dogs. It also carries some rules left over from the past, including a ban on dropping tired or injured dogs along a route that crosses mountainous terrain marked by punishing wind and subzero temperatures.
"This is about who has the best team, not who is the best musher," said race director Phil Schobert. "There's intentionally a lot of challenge in it so the mushers have to take a lot of care for their dogs. This race is 100 percent about the dogs."
The run to the old mining settlement of Candle and back commemorates the 100th anniversary of the original race and takes place 25 years after the last sweepstakes was held. Holding to the frontier theme, mushers had to pay part of the entry fee with an ounce of gold. Another antique touch: race judges will not declare a winner until 24 hours after the first teams return to Nome's Front Street, giving mushers time to lodge any complaints they want. There are no limits, either, to the number of dogs on a team.
"It was a kick," Chugiak musher Jim Lanier said of the 1983 sweepstakes. "When I heard they were bringing it back, I signed up immediately."
Among the other participants is Ramy Brooks, a two-time Iditarod runner-up who was disqualified from the 2007 race for striking his dogs with a wooden trail marker. One of the Healy musher's dogs died the day after the incident, but a necropsy could not determine a cause of death.
Brooks did not respond to requests by The Associated Press to comment on his participation in the sweepstakes. But organizers said anyone convicted of animal abuse or neglect would not be allowed to enter under race rules. Brooks does not fall into that category, said assistant race director Lisa Schobert, Phil's wife.
"He was reprimanded, spanked, but was never legally convicted of anything," she said. "With Ramy coming out on this race, you can bet everyone will be watching him. You can bet he won't be doing anything wrong."
Three Iditarod champions also are among the competitors lured by the largest cash prize for a sled dog race in Alaska (the Iditarod pays $69,000 to the winner). They include Fairbanks musher Lance Mackey, a 37-year-old cancer survivor who just won his second consecutive Iditarod, three weeks after his fourth consecutive win in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. Also competing is four-time Iditarod winner Jeff King of Denali Park, who ran a close match with Mackey in this year's race, finishing second.
Mackey, the only musher to win the back-to-back races, is seeking an unprecedented triple crown with the sweepstakes. But he has reservations about a sweepstakes rule requiring mushers to sign over their dog ownership rights to the Nome Kennel Club - the organizer of the current and past races - while on the trail. Essentially, mushers unable or unwilling to abide by race rules face the choice of either withdrawing from the sweepstakes or forfeiture of their teams.
Mackey said he appreciates the rule's goal of fair and humane competition. But he's put off by its all-or-nothing aspect.
"That's about the only thing I disagree with," he said. "It's kind of weird. It gives them full control of how you're running."
Another rule forbids official dog drops. The intention is to ensure mushers will select only the strongest, healthiest dogs, leaving behind iffy animals that might be dropped in other races. As far as King is concerned, the restriction means participants will have to drive their teams to accommodate the weaker dogs, not the other way around.
"It's the most humane dog rule every instituted in a dog race," the 51-year-old musher said.