Iditarod kicks off with fewer dogs, mushers in race

Sat Mar 7, 2009 6:11pm EST
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By Yereth Rosen

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Some 67 mushers and their eager dogs began the grueling trek to Nome on Saturday in the Iditarod dog-sled race, with a ceremonial start amid the sounds of yapping huskies and crunching snow.

The 11-mile run through Alaska's largest city, cheered on by a crowd of well-bundled spectators, was just a formality.

Timed competition for the 1,100-mile trek will start on Sunday in Willow, a small community about 80 miles north of Anchorage and a gateway to the roadless wilderness where the real adventure takes place.

The trek commemorates a lifesaving medicine relay in 1925.

Under sunny skies, teams of mushers and their dogs, mostly Alaskan huskies, lined up with start times every two minutes, then rode through downtown streets to the cheering of dog-sled fans.

Economic strains have reduced the lineup of competitors in the 37th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race from last year's record of 96. Besides the $4,000 entry fee, many mushers must take time off from regular jobs to train. And some sponsors have cut their Iditarod budgets in response to the economic downturn.

The 2009 winner will take home $69,000 and a new truck, the same reward as last year, but the total purse has dropped to about $650,000 from the roughly $900,000 paid out last year.

Typically, the winning sled bounds into Nome after about nine days on the trail. But with deep snow burying the middle portion of the trail, the sledding is expected to take more time this year.   Continued...

<p>Siberian Huskies sit tethered during a day of preparation for the Arden Grange Aviemore 2009 Sled Dog Rally, which will take place on Saturday and Sunday, near Loch Morlich in Scotland January 22, 2009. REUTERS/David Moir</p>