The battered Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race purse got boost Monday from an unusual source.
Not from a fat-cat sponsor. Not from a wealthy donor. Not from a new online initiative.
Instead, one of Iditarod's most successful and durable racers, 54-year-old Jeff King of Denali Park, signed a $50,000 check to the organization, with every dime going to the purse split by the fastest finishers to Nome.
"In terms of an outright cash contribution, it's the most ever by a musher — by a long shot," Iditarod president Stan Hooley said.
King said the race's financial woes, first detailed last month, prompted his action.
"It got me to thinking how much the race has meant to me and how great my life has been as a result of being a dog musher," he said. "It's important for people to contribute to what's meaningful to them."
Early in December, the Iditarod announced it had already trimmed $500,000 from its $3.7 million race budget for 2010, and that purse, cut sharply before last year's race, would absorb another $100,000 hit. The announcement continued the shredding of a purse that just two years ago was $925,000. By the time racers head down Anchorage Fourth Avenue on March 6, officials vowed, the purse would be no more than $525,000 unless new donors materialized.
"I'm not a rich man," said King, a four-time champion and the oldest racer (50) to win the 1,000-mile race to Nome, "but I've won a lot of money with the Iditarod. People have made sacrifices before. (Founder) Joe Redington mortgaged his house to get the race some money. Susan Butcher wrote a big IOU.
"I'm hoping I can stimulate others — even if it's just a few bucks."
King's donation amounts to about 9 percent of the announced purse of the biggest race in the sport. To put that in perspective, consider this: If Phil Michelson wanted donate an equal percentage to the Masters Golf Tournament's $7.25 million purse, he'd be writing a check for more than $660,000.
Four-time champion King has earned $765,520 in Iditarod winnings, more than any other musher. His rookie run nearly three decades ago is only time King has finished outside the top 12. In addition to the Iditarod, King has won Alaska's premier middle distance race, the Kuskokwim 300, a record eight times and the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race once.
Off season, King runs Husky Homestead tours from his Goose Lake Kennels near the entrance to Denali National Park, offering sled-dog tours from March to September. His wife, Donna Gates, is a successful artist and King's Web site displays the logos of 11 sponsors.
But even with King's donation, the Iditarod purse will be less than last year unless additional contributors step forward.
"I think flat is the new up," King said.
While King's donation may be the biggest ever by a musher, it isn't the first. As recently as two years ago, 2004 Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey of Sterling donated $10,000 to the 2010 Seppala Heritage Grant associated with the Iditarod after winning the $100,000 winner-take-all All Alaska Sweepstakes.
"I think Jeff is in an enviable position, with a profitable business besides racing — and he has a passion for the sport," Seavey said. "Give him kudos. I hope it inspires non-participants to become participants.
"But money is tight. I think you could have a wood shop accident and still count on the fingers of one hand how many mushers can do what Jeff is doing."
The $50,000 matches the size of the check 1978 Iditarod champion Dick Mackey handed to King after the California transplant won his first Iditarod in 1993.
"If you'd asked me then if I'd be willing to pay it back 25 years later, interest free, for opening doors it opened to me, I hope I would have said yes," King said. "It seemed like a huge amount of money at first when my wife and I started talking about it, but the race has given me more."
King said Iditarod officials did not solicit the donation, but they were happy to accept it.
"It is really a generous contribution," said Lee Larson, the president of the Iditarod board of directors. "It's encouraging and inspiring — particularly now. We've had to make reductions in the budget, and we're not making superficial cuts.
"He's benefitted from the arena we have him in by staging the No. 1 sled dog race in the world, but what he's done today is very inspiring."
For years, the inventive King has cut his own mushing path with notable success. He pioneered the sit sled that allowed mushers more rest on the trail, he's trained his dogs by having them swim during the summer to build stamina, he's tinkered endlessly with nutrition and next month he'll be the rare Iditarod champion entering the Fur Rendezvous World Championship sprint race.
Reach reporter Mike Campbell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4329.
By MIKE CAMPBELL
Alaska Dispatch Publishing