NOME - A dog named Tobuk traveling in the team of musher Al Hardman near Elim abruptly keeled over and died Wednesday afternoon, the first animal to perish in the 28th annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
The 3-year old male dropped with no warning on the trail two miles shy of the Bering Sea coast village checkpoint and didn't respond to Hardman's efforts to resuscitate it, according to race marshal Mark Nordman.
Hardman, 57, of Ludington, Mich., is in his second Iditarod. After an initial investigation found no culpability, he was allowed to continue racing with seven dogs.
Hardman was in 36th place at the time of the incident. Iditarod officials expressed dismay at the dog's death. No Iditarod has ever been completed without a dog death.
"It was a surprise," said Nordman, who said he knows Hardman as a solid musher in the Lower 48. "I hate to be trite, but the dog was just going along and died. We didn't feel it was too warm. There was a cool breeze."
Nordman spoke to Hardman, who finished 33rd in his only other Iditarod in 1997, and said the musher was doing his best to cope with the dog's death and felt he owed it to the other dogs to finish the final 125 miles of the race.
"It throws everybody for a loop," Nordman said.
The record field of 81 mushers and more than 1,000 dogs at the start is being tended to by 35 veterinarians, and there was a feeling the race could be completed without a dog death," Nordman said.
ITC President Rick Koch said the unwelcome news is depressing.
"It puts a pall over all of us," he said. "It generates negative publicity to be used in a skewed fashion (by animal rights groups)," Koch said. "It's never in the context of there was one death out of 1,300 (animals) on the trail."
Iditarod officials are continuing to review the circumstances of the dog death and said a gross necropsy will be performed by a pathologist in an attempt to discover the cause of death.
Between the 1987 and 2000 races, 38 dogs are known to have died from internal bleeding, ulcers, hypothermia in deadly storms, strangulation in team tangles and unexplained heart failure, according to Daily News reports and interviews with mushers and vets who worked the races.
During the last decade, 29 dogs have died. In half of those years - 1992, 1994, 1996, 1999 and so far this year - just one dog died. But, by contrast, eight died in 1991.
Historically, some of the best-rested dogs have died, former chief Iditarod vet Bob Sept told the Daily News two years ago. Dogs have tended to die in the first couple of days of the race, when they are the freshest, or in the teams of slow-moving mushers in the last half of the race.
"A factor that nobody likes to talk about is the quicker you get the race over, the smaller the opportunity for something to happen," Rick Swenson said a couple of years ago. The 2000 Iditarod may be the fastest ever, with champion Doug Swingley posting a race record. Of the 20 fastest Iditarod finishes of all time, seven came this year.
((f"Helvetica Black"))ON THE WAY UP: A breakthrough performance was recorded by Hans Gatt of Atlin, B.C., who finished 12th in 9 days, 22 hours, 57 minutes Wednesday morning.
Gatt's previous high finish was 22nd last year.
The recent winner of the International Rocky Mountain Stage Stop Race in Wyoming said that although it may seem that the fast pace of the 12-day, 452-mile event would be good preparation for the Iditarod, it's actually very different.
"It's a completely different speed," Gatt said. "You go really hard 50 or 60 miles a day. I really just planned to run the Iditarod this year, but I missed it (the stage race)."
((f"Helvetica Black"))ON THE WAY BACK: Two veteran racers bounced back with higher finishes in 2000 than they had in 1999.
Bill Cotter, 53, of Nenana, who was 14th last year, took 10th, and Tim Osmar, 33, of Ninilchik, who was 18th last year, was 16th this year.
Cotter said his dogs had the flu and a dog fight.
"No matter where you finish, you have problems you have to deal with," Cotter said.
Cotter said he worked for a year developing two new leaders, bringing them to Kotzebue to train in hard winds.
"It helped a lot," Cotter said.
Osmar was upbeat, downing a beer at the finish, but said snowmachine traffic so tore up the trail it caused injuries to his leaders.
"I had one leader, so I had to be conservative," Osmar said. "If there weren't so many danged good people, I would have been in the top 10. It was a decent adventure by Tim Osmar."