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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - In hard economic times, even the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the famed long-distance trek across frozen Alaska starting on Saturday, has had to scratch around for a little extra assistance.
Sponsorship and business woes have cut race revenues by nearly $1 million over the past 15 months, forcing deep cuts in administration and prizes awarded to mushers who make the 1,150-mile (1,851-km) sled-dog journey from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska.
This year's total prize purse is about $590,000, a $52,000 decrease from last year's purse and significantly less than the $925,000 paid out to mushers in the race two years ago.
Race managers are hoping merchandise sales, subscriptions to online video and other revenues will pick up as the race gets underway and, over the longer term, the economy recovers, said Iditarod Executive Director Stan Hooley.
"We're certainly having to work harder in these challenging economic times to raise the revenue that we'd like to raise to restore that purse to the levels we had a couple of years ago," Hooley said at a news conference in Anchorage on Wednesday.
To help out, four-time champion Jeff King -- who has said he intends to make this year's Iditarod his final run -- has chipped in $50,000 to bolster the race's finances. The city of Nome, for which the Iditarod is a major annual event, has contributed a similar amount.
Other organizations, including government entities, are stepping up their involvement to keep the race running smoothly. The U.S. Coast Guard, which has decided to throw some financial support to top Fairbanks musher Ken Anderson, is a new contributor to the event.
Iditarod involvement is a way to showcase the Coast Guard's growing presence in the Arctic, made necessary by increased vessel traffic as sea ice disappears, said Petty Officer First Class David Mosley.
The Iditarod commemorates a 1925 mission that used dog teams to ferry lifesaving medicine to Nome during a diphtheria epidemic.
For Alaskans, "Nothing's bigger than the Iditarod," Mosley said. "This event is followed by kids all around the nation, as well as Alaska."
"There's just not as much money floating around for everything," Anderson said at an Anchorage elementary school where he and several Coast Guard officers spoke. "Usually you hunt for sponsorships. They came to me."
If the flow of money to the Iditarod has slowed, the competition has not, according to race officials. This year's field of 71 mushers includes a large crowd of top contenders, officials say.
"We think this is going to be as competitive as any other race in the history of the Iditarod," Hooley said, noting that nine of last year's top 10 finishers are back, including several past champions: King, Martin Buser, Lance Mackey, Mitch Seavey and Rick Swenson.
Winners usually cross the Nome finish line in about nine days. The winner will take home about $50,000 and a new truck.
Not participating in this year's race is "Team Norway," a trio of Norwegian mushers led by two-time Iditarod champion Robert Sorlie. The Norwegians are sitting out this year's race, most likely for economic reasons, but are expected to be back, Hooley said.
New to the Iditarod is a musher from Jamaica. Newton Marshall of St. Anne, Jamaica, is racing a team of dogs from the Fairbanks kennel operated by Mackey, winner of the past three Iditarods.
Also new is mandatory drug testing for all mushers. Dogs have been tested since 1994, but it has not been until this year -- when the race picked up an Anchorage-based workplace-safety firm as a sponsor -- that human competitors were subject to tests.
The drug-testing policy has stirred controversy because marijuana is among the prohibited substances. Mackey contends the rule is aimed at him. He has regularly smoked marijuana on the trail, making use of a medical prescription to help him cope with lingering symptoms from a bout with cancer.
Hooley said Mackey may be right about the rule, which was put in place at the insistence of a musher's committee. "The reality of it is he's won the race three times, and people would like to figure out a way to beat him," Hooley said.
Editing by Bill Rigby and Todd Eastham