By RACHEL D'ORO , Associated Press
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Hundreds of barking dogs and excited fans are converging on Alaska's largest city for Saturday's ceremonial start of the famed Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
The morning trek along snow-heaped streets in downtown Anchorage gives fans a chance to mingle with mushers and their furry teams before the competitive portion of the 1,000-mile (1,600-kilometer) race to Nome begins Sunday in the community of Willow to the north.
The event comes amid a plethora of troubles for race organizers, including a former winner's dog doping scandal, the loss of a major sponsor and increasing pressure from animal rights activists following the deaths of five dogs connected to last year's race.
Iditarod officials acknowledge the problems have been a growing process for organizers.
Perhaps the most challenging issue was the October disclosure that four dogs belonging to four-time winner Dallas Seavey tested positive for a banned substance, the opioid painkiller tramadol, after his second-place finish last March behind his father, Mitch Seavey. The race's leadership faced criticism for not releasing the information sooner.
The Iditarod said it couldn't prove Dallas Seavey administered the drugs to his dogs, and didn't punish him. Since then, the rules have been changed to hold mushers liable for any positive drug test unless they can show something beyond their control happened.
Seavey has denied administering tramadol to his dogs. He is sitting out this year's race in protest over the handling of the doping investigation. Instead, he is in Norway to participate in another sled dog race, the Finnmarkslopet, which begins next week.
For this year's Iditarod, 67 teams are signed up to vie for a total purse of $500,000. Organizers say the winner's share of the prize money will be determined later in the race.
The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a longtime Iditarod critic, has said about a dozen of its members will gather to protest at the ceremonial and competitive starts and at the finish line in Nome.