WASILLA - Stan Hooley, dressed in a stylish chameleon green windbreaker, appeared tanned and relaxed in his office at the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race headquarters building.
But it was Hooley's carefully worded responses to questions about dog abuse allegations levied against one of the race's most popular mushers - and the large massage chair in the corner - that point toward a different reality.
The Iditarod is under some stress.
Iditarod officials are dealing with allegations swirling around musher Ramy Brooks of Healy that he kicked some of his dogs and hit some with his fists, and struck them with a ski pole, when they didn't want to leave the village of Golovin, less than 100 miles from the finish in this year's 1,100-mile race from Anchorage to Nome.
It's just the kind of allegation that sends ripples of anxiety through the insular Iditarod community of race officials, mushers, sponsors, volunteers and race fans.
Hooley said the increased scrutiny revives bad memories of a decade ago when animal welfare groups exploited the race to gain attention and drove away sponsors.
"Nobody likes the fact that we are dealing with this issue," he said.
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At the same time, Hooley said, it is important to note the changes between then and now, especially when it comes to how mushers treat their dogs and the Iditarod's zero tolerance for any form of dog abuse.
"This sport has matured. This sport has evolved," he said.
Race officials have requested that the organization's lawyers conduct an independent investigation, Hooley said.
The investigation is being conducted by Davis Wright & Tremaine in Anchorage.
"It is not something we are going to deal with among ourselves," Hooley said. "We just wanted to remove ourselves."
The 38-year-old Brooks said the media has sensationalized what occurred in Golovin.
"I am going to defend myself," Brooks said, declining to comment further.
Lawyer Thomas Wang of Anchorage, a friend of Brooks' family, said he's helping to get Ramy's side of the story to the investigator.
"I hope and assume it will be a fair process. At this time I have no reason to believe it won't be," Wang said.
Race officials are hoping the report will be ready for the board of directors meeting on Friday.
Hooley said it is unlikely the board will make an immediate decision on consequences ranging from doing nothing to a lifetime ban.
Brooks has admitted to "spanking" his dogs with a wooden trail marker and was disqualified from this year's race. It was the first disqualification since Hooley became the race's executive director 14 years ago.
Race officials are dealing with the difference between Brooks' account and what three people in Golovin have told race officials.
"The additional allegations are significant," Hooley said.
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