ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - When the world’s most famous sled dog race opens in downtown Anchorage on Saturday, it will be in many ways a scaled-down event compared with past contests.
At the starting line of the 47th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race will be 52 mushers and their dog teams, the fewest since 1989. The teams themselves will be smaller, too, thanks to a new rule limiting each to 14 dogs, down from the previous 16-dog maximum.
And the prize purse will be about $500,000, the same as last year but still less than the $750,000 of previous years.
After a tumultuous period marked by declining sponsorship, ramped-up animal-rights protests, bickering over management conflicts of interest and a dog-doping scandal, Iditarod organizers and competitors say they are adjusting.
There is a new board, new regulations and a new, if streamlined, financial picture.
“I’m really excited about this year,” Iditarod race director Mark Nordman told reporters. “It seems like the mushers are happy.”
One of the race’s best-known competitors said he is also optimistic.
“It’s a watershed year,” said four-time champion Martin Buser, one of five previous winners racing this year.
Buser has some misgivings about the 14-dog limit, however. The rule, aimed at improving animal care by allowing dogs more attention from their mushers, benefits lighter contestants over heavier rivals, he said.
Indeed, most of this year’s Iditarod mushers are small and wiry, said Buser, who weighs about 200 pounds (91 kg).
“I’m really outnumbered,” he said.
The Iditarod, commemorating the 1925 rescue mission that used a dog-team relay to deliver life-saving diphtheria medicine to the Gold Rush town of Nome, runs nearly 1,000 miles (1,610 km).
Saturday’s 11-mile (18-km) starting course through Anchorage is merely ceremonial. Timed competition begins on Sunday in the community of Willow, about an hour’s drive north.
From Willow, the trail winds through mountains and windswept flats, then over the frozen Yukon River and along the Bering Sea coast to the Nome finish line - a course that usually takes the winner about nine days.
For the most part, trail conditions are good this year, with plenty of snow through the Alaska Range and on the Yukon River, Nordman said.
A lack of Bering Sea ice will force some inland shifts in the approach to the finish line, lengthening the course by 30 miles to 40 miles (48 to 64 km), race officials said. But the race will go on.
“There’s nothing that’s going to stop Iditarod from getting to Nome. We’ve got plenty of alternatives,” Nordman said.
Reporting by Yereth Rosen in Anchorage; Editing by Steve Gorman and Sandra Maler