One thing you can count on about cowards is that they never show up on the battlefield.
All of which leaves one wondering about USA Today columnist Jon Saraceno. He is a self-proclaimed authority on the imagined plight of the animals in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race who has never set foot on the trail. He is the sort of sports columnist you can't reach on the telephone because he doesn't have the guts to answer. He has his calls screened.
As Norwegian Kjetl Backen grieved over a dead lead dog this year, Saraceno launched his annual attack on The Last Great Race.
He wrote of team mutinies because of the "fast, grueling pace during unusually warm weather." Indeed, the early pace was fast, and the weather was unusually warm and difficult for the dogs.
But there is one small factual problem. There had been no mutinies when Saraceno pecked out his column.
Saraceno wrote, too, of the many dogs "dropped during the race because they are unable to continue, but many others continue to trudge on with various injuries.''
This, too, had at least a hint of truth to it. There are many dogs dropped in the Iditarod just as there are many humans who drop out of the Boston Marathon. They pull muscles. They get fatigued. They come down with illnesses. And they drop out.
Then, like most humans, they go home and recover.
That any dogs "trudge on with various injuries'' is both a testament to Saraceno's ignorance and an insult to the veterinarians who volunteer at the 20-plus checkpoints along the trail. Rest assured that, particularly in the front- running teams, any dog that shows signs of trudging is among those dogs that get dropped.
You don't average 8 to 10 mph with trudgers.
And any back-of-the-pack musher with a dog that looks to be in trouble will have a veterinarian quickly counseling him, in a rather forceful manner if need be, to drop the dog.
These are simple and obvious facts, the kind Saraceno might grasp if only he'd witnessed the race. But, of course, he hasn't.
He sits somewhere back in an office on the East Coast with his butt plopped down in a easy chair making claims that "mushers and their teams are not monitored by the media or anyone else'' and that Daily News coverage of the race is "designed to lull readers and placate critics.''
As a regular player in Daily News Iditarod coverage, this is news to me. I don't know that I've ever before been accused of lulling anyone. Usually, it's the opposite. And I know darn well I've never been involved in an effort to placate anybody or anything. Truthfully, I don't think I know how.
Given my reputation as a rabble-rouser, I should probably take this placating thing as a compliment.
But I don't.
Maybe that's because I'm the guy who put together the first and only objective accounting of just how many dogs have died in the Iditarod over the years, the accounting that Saraceno and his animal rights friends so love to distort.
Maybe that's because I'm the guy who has repeatedly questioned why dogs still occasionally die and what can be done about it, while Saraceno and his ilk advocate ending the race so sled dogs can join the many ignorantly abused dogs that have helped America's epidemic of obesity slide from the human world into the canine world.
Want to worry about dog abuse? Look no farther than the Pillsbury Doughdog down the street.
Dogs didn't evolve to roll, they evolved to run. That Saraceno attacks the integrity of the Daily News for accepting this reality is irksome. But, hey, I'm sure everyone here is used to having their integrity challenged.
What I don't think any of us is used to is a national columnist flat-out lying to his readers. And that's what Saraceno does when he makes the claim that "teams are not monitored by the media or anyone else.''
Since he lacks the guts to put himself out on the trail (I'm sure the weather is just too much for him), I'm willing to wager this is a simple lie of ignorance. It's a lie nonetheless. The dogs are scrutinized by reporters and others all along the trail. Get on the Internet, and you can find Web sites that will give you photos of the dogs here, there and everywhere, plus some video.
Then there are those veterinarians who professionally monitor the dogs. I know some of them. I've met them along the trail over the years in the process of personally following Iditarod dogs by snowmobile for hundreds of miles.
Along the way, I have even done a few things to help dogs in trouble. I've joined mushers to untangle dogs with limbs wrapped in ganglines -- a misstep that can lead to muscle pulls or possibly, though rarely, broken limbs.
And the year five-time Iditarod champ Rick Swenson had a dog die in overflow (the only dog he's ever had die in tens of thousands of miles of Iditarod mushing, it is worth noting), a Daily News photographer and I grabbed a bundle of trail markers, drove up the trail, and marked a safe way around that overflow for other dog teams to follow.
Some of my colleagues later questioned whether that was the ethically proper thing for a journalist to do. I don't really care if it was or not, because it was the right thing to do.
I confess to sharing the trait that St. Michael musher Jerry Austin once assigned to Swenson: "He's a stupid old dog lover.''
So I guess I take it personally when some fat-mouth, city slicker back on the East Coast slides his easy chair up to the computer that attaches him to a national forum and launches an assault on the Daily News as a front for dog abuse and dog abusers.
It's time for somebody to call Saraceno out, and I'm more than happy to do it.
Listen up, city boy. Next year, if you can figure out how to ride a snowmobile, I'm willing to guide you on a 1,100-mile tour of the Iditarod Trail to watch these dogs in action. I'm wagering we can get the Daily News to pay for it. If not, I'll foot the bill myself.
I can't guarantee we'll get to Nome in comfort, but I will guarantee we get there safely. Alaskans are a friendly and tolerant lot. We're even willing to accommodate liars and cowards on their simple word that they are willing to reform their ways and take an objective look.
Who knows, maybe you'll even get lucky and find some horrible cruelty we've all somehow missed. Maybe you'll uncover some dirty secret that will put you on the road to winning USA Today's first Pulitzer Prize. Of course, we'll still be ahead. The Daily News has two of those. But wouldn't it be nice if the publication that considers itself America's newspaper was at least once recognized by our profession for doing some reporting of merit?
For you, the first step is to get your butt out of the office and onto the trail. Good reporters go to the battle to see what's going on. Show enough gumption to do this next March and, if nothing else, you'll win my respect.
Even if you don't find any of the God-awful dog abuse you claim is going on here in Alaska, even if you conclude the race is simply more than the sissified dogs of today should be asked to do, I'll shut up and tolerate whatever drivel you might write in the future as a reflection of an honest disagreement about what constitutes proper relations between humans and animals in this day and age.
But I'm tired of listening to nonsense from someone who has never been there.
So here's your chance.
Put up, or shut up until you've at least seen enough of the event to have some idea of the subject about which you write.
Daily News Outdoor editor Craig Medred can be reached at email@example.com.
JON SARACENO'S COLUMN appeared in the March 15 edition of USA Today on page C-7. Saraceno can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.