After dog deaths, rookie Iditarod mushers get new scrutiny

Kyle Hopkins

Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race organizers tightened entry requirements for rookies this year following an unusually high number of dog deaths in 2009, the chief veterinarian for the race said Wednesday.

"It's been something that I've wanted for quite awhile, and now it's taking place and I think a lot of that has to do with what happened last year," said Stuart Nelson, as hundreds of dogs arrived at race headquarters for last-minute health exams.

Six dogs died in 2009. That includes two that were hypothermic and one from a healthy team that was apparently killed during a turbulent plane ride, Nelson said.

"It is the most since I've been the chief veterinarian, which is 15 years," he said.

Outside the vet trailer, Ontario rookie Hank DeBruin knelt on the cold asphalt as a volunteer inspected one of his dogs front to back.

The team looks good, DeBruin said, with the exception of a heart murmur in a dog named Jester. DeBruin was on his way to talk it over with the vet,. "If there's any question at all, he won't run," he said.

Beginning with this year's race, mushers new to the Iditarod are now rated by veterinarians and race marshals in their qualifying races on dog care and general trail competence, Nelson said.

The report cards go to a qualifying review board, which decides whether mushers need more race experience before competing in the Iditarod, Nelson said.

"We just want feedback. You know, any red flags, any concerns about this person. Are they going to get themselves in trouble out there ... did they do a good job of addressing all the trail issues that need to be mastered?"

Based on the new performance reviews, the review board earlier decided four rookie mushers who had sought to run the Iditarod should run additional races before taking on the 2010 Iditarod, race marshal Mark Nordman said.

DeBruin wasn't among that group. Two ended up withdrawing for unrelated reasons while another two completed additional races and are considered prepared for the Iditarod, Nordman said.

The recommendation for the mushers was not based on their treatment of dogs, Nordman said, but the need for more preparation and "more time on the sled."

Twenty-two rookies will be in this year's field.

The winner's check: $50,000

This year's Iditarod purse for the top 30 mushers is about $561,000, down roughly $52,000 from 2009, race officials said Wednesday.

The winner will get about $50,000, compared to the $69,000 champion Lance Mackey won last year.

Mackey singled out?

The Iditarod's new drug-testing policy for mushers will apply to every competitor, with tests conducted on the trail, race officials said Wednesday.

"The entire field will be tested," executive director Stan Hooley told reporters at meeting with media in Anchorage.

Organizers have long tested mushers' dogs for drugs, but this is a first for the human competitors in the 1,000-mile race.

Defending champ Mackey, the most dominant musher of the past three years, told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in December that he has used marijuana on the trail in the past but will comply with the ban this year. A throat cancer survivor, he's said his success made other competitors jealous and prompted finger pointing.

A reporter on Wednesday asked Hooley about Mackey's belief that the new testing "is being implemented to single him out" after competitors complained.

"It would be hard to try and argue differently than that," Hooley said at a meeting with media at the Millennium Hotel in Anchorage. "He won the race three times and people would like to figure out a way to beat him. I don't think he's off base in what he's saying."

Race Marshal Mark Nordman said the rules aren't directed at a single person but are an overdue effort to dispel rumors and "clear the slate."

Read Iditarod Live, the ADN's sled blog, at Twitter updates: Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334.

Contact Kyle Hopkins at or on