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As a drug test controversy rocks the Iditarod, sponsors say they’ll stick with the race

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: October 30, 2017
  • Published October 27, 2017

The ceremonial start of the 2017 Iditarod in Anchorage on March 4, 2017 (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

In the wake of the Iditarod drug-test controversy, about a dozen race sponsors said on Friday that they didn't plan to pull their support from the 2018 race.

Iditarod spokesman Chas St. George said the race had not lost any sponsors since Oct. 9, when the Iditarod Trail Committee Board of Directors first announced that several sled dogs on a 2017 Iditarod team tested positive for a prohibited drug.

"We're definitely a principal partner for the race for 2018," said Kurt Parkan, external affairs manager for Donlin Gold, a mining company and one of the Iditarod's four top sponsors alongside GCI, ExxonMobil and Anchorage Chrysler Dodge Jeep and Ram. "We believe that it's a great race. Alaskans love it. It's something that's important to a lot of people."

Alaska Dispatch News reached out to the two dozen race sponsors listed on the Iditarod's website Friday, and heard back from about a dozen of them. Some said they had sent "concerns" to the Iditarod Trail Committee and a couple said they were monitoring the situation, but all said they would continue their partnership with the race in 2018.

"We kind of look at this whole thing as an unfortunate series of events that is probably going to be best solved by everyone recognizing that they need to come together and have conversations about ways to solve problems," said David Karp, president and chief executive of longtime race sponsor Northern Air Cargo.

Two weeks after race officials announced that several sled dogs failed a drug test after finishing the 2017 Iditarod, they issued another statement Monday that said the dogs had come in second place with four-time Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey.

Seavey denies giving his dogs any prohibited drugs, including tramadol — the drug race officials say they tested positive for. He has criticized the race's handling of the drug tests and called for more security on the trail and in the Nome dog lot.

Race officials have not penalized Seavey and have said they can't prove how the drug got into the dogs' systems. They did, however, change race rules so next time there's a positive drug test, a musher needs to prove he or she didn't give the drug to the dog, instead of that investigation falling to race officials.

"This is an unfortunate instance that really highlights the importance of maintaining rules that protect the dogs," said Parkan, of Donlin Gold. "I think the race committee will learn from it and hopefully there's a lesson for everybody."

The Iditarod Trail Committee budgeted about $1.7 million for the 2018 Iditarod, roughly half of the committee's projected expenses for the current budget year, according to information provided last month by the Iditarod chief executive, Stan Hooley.

The committee expected to earn about 40 percent of its revenue, or $1.42 million, from sponsorships, according to Hooley.

GCI spokeswoman Heather Handyside said in a statement on Friday that "the welfare of the dogs and the mushers" was the company's top priority.

"We are aware of the current issue and expressed our concerns to the Iditarod Trail Committee," she said. "We know that the ITC, like GCI, is committed to promoting excellence in dog care among its mushers. We are hopeful they will work through this situation in order to maintain the confidence of supporters of this great Alaska tradition."

Alaska Airlines shared similar sentiments in a statement Friday.

"We are concerned as many others are about any incident that impacts the safety of the dogs," the airline said. "We have been in conversations with the Iditarod Trail Committee as safety is and has always been our primary focus as an Iditarod sponsor."

Andy Kline, a spokesman for Alaskan Brewing Co., said he believed the positive drug tests were an "isolated incident." The company is considered a "wheel dog" partner of the Iditarod, the lowest level of sponsorship.

"We feel the Iditarod is humane and run well and has the utmost concern for the health and safety of the dogs and of the mushers, so we're comfortable sponsoring at the level that we sponsor it now," Kline said.

There were 57 mushers signed up to compete in the 2018 Iditarod by Friday evening. In this past week, Dallas Seavey, Jason Mackey of Nenana and Laura Neese of Michigan dropped out of the 2018 race.

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