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WASILLA - Sixty dog mushers, led by three-time defending champion Lance Mackey of Two Rivers, have signed up for the 38th running of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Mackey, along with former champions Martin Buser of Big Lake and Jeff King of Denali, were among the nearly three dozen mushers on hand June 27 at the annual Iditarod volunteer picnic at Iditarod headquarters for the first day sign-up for the 1,049-mile race to Nome.
Others, including former champion Mitch Seavey of Seward, mailed their entry fees in time to be included in the day's drawing to determine the order in which they would choose their place in the starting line-up.
The deadline for registering is Nov. 30, with the ceremonial start set for first Saturday in March in Anchorage.
The overall number of first day entries was down from 68 last year, said Stan Hooley, executive director of the Iditarod Trail Committee.
The 43 race veterans and 17 rookies will be competing for a purse of about $630,000, with $610,000 earmarked for the top 30 contenders and $1,049 apiece for all other finishers. The ITC will decide at its October meeting how to divvy up prize money for the top contenders.
Under new rules in place this year by the ITC, the dog drivers had the option of signing up at the annual Iditarod volunteers picnic or submitting entry forms and the $4,000 race fee by mail in time to be recorded at the picnic, and still have an edge in determining their place in the race line-up.
In previous years, only mushers who signed up at the picnic were put into the so-called first tier to determine the order in which they would draw their actual starting positions at the Iditarod banquet, which takes place several days before the start of the annual race.
Competitors signing up after the June 27 deadline are automatically in the second tier and will draw their starting positions in the order in which they signed up, said Chas St. George, a spokesman for the ITC.
During the picnic, mushers mingled with dozens of Iditarod fans, signing autographs and posing for photographs.
Hooley said that despite a tight economy, he is optimistic that the financial support needed to pay some $1.65 million in costs for the race will be met. The ITC increased the entry fee two years ago, from $1,850 to $4,000.
Sponsorships cover about 31 percent of race costs, while race merchandise, including multi-media offers and raffles, make up the other 69 percent, he said.
"The sponsors have an emotional attachment to the race," Hooley said. "They believe in it. For those reasons we have a better chance of keeping and growing the budget."
Iditarod champions Mackey and Buser expressed relief that the entry fee would be status quo at least for another year.
"Everything has gone up (in price) except the purse," Mackey said. "There are people here who would love to race, but can't afford it. I think that by doubling the entry fee, they obviously squished out the little guys. It costs at least $15,000 to run even if you are skimping."
But King, another winner of several Iditarods, said he felt the mushers were getting their money's worth for that $4,000 fee.
"I know what it takes to put on an event of this caliber and to guarantee the safety of the dogs," he said. King was one of two mushers to win a picnic drawing giving them free entry into the race. The other was Kotzebue's Robert Nelson.
Buser, who acknowledged that the ITC was hard hit by the economy, said he felt more effort should be made internationally to raise funds for the race.
"People everywhere are infatuated with the race," he said. "Alaska is one of those magical words. There is a global interest."
Iditarod veteran Eric Rogers, who is still trying to raise enough funds to compete this year, said last year's race cost him $17,000.
"I'm having a tough time raising the money," said Rogers, who has a doctorate in physics, but considers mushing his current occupation. "I've been running in the hole for four years and I'm running out of holes."