ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Scores of professional mushers on Monday demanded that organizers of Alaska's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race identify a top competitor who had several dogs test positive for a banned opioid pain reliever in this year's race.
The statement from the Iditarod Official Finishers Club statement was signed by 83 current and former competitors who called for the musher to be named within 72 hours.
The demand came after the group held an emergency meeting Sunday to discuss how organizers of the nearly 1,000-mile (1,609-kilometer) race handled its first instance of dogs testing positive for a banned drug.
Club president and competitor Wade Marrs told The Associated Press that the mushers who signed the document feel they could be unfairly seen as guilty of doping their dogs because the person whose dogs tested positive for the opioid was not named.
"It negatively impacts all of us when this happens," he said. "We hold our public image very strongly and we don't like to see damage done to it."
Marrs said the general consensus among signing mushers was that the matter was mishandled by race officials.
"It is unacceptable that multiple dogs tested positive for a drug in a single musher's team and that that information was only recently made public when it was known since shortly after the team finished," the group's statement said.
Phone and email message seeking comment from Chas St. George, the race's main spokesman, were not immediately returned on Monday.
But race officials on Monday released a statement that they had sent a day earlier to the musher's club, saying race organizers did not think they could prove intent on the musher's part and had modified a race rule about canine drug use that will go into effect for next year.
The mushers' statement responded that the rule change was "wholly inadequate," saying a policy is needed that outlines steps to be taken when cases of dog doping occurs — including withholding prize money while the cases are investigated.
Race officials said last week that several dogs had an opioid pain reliever in their systems after the team finished the race in March.
The team was tested six hours after finishing the nearly 1,000-mile race in Nome in March, officials said. Race officials have estimated the drug could have been administered between 15 hours before the test and right before it.
All but eight of the top 20 finishers for this year's race signed the statement. The signers included defending champion Mitch Seavey, four-time champion Jeff King, fan favorite Aliy Zirkle and Ray Redington Jr., whose grandfather, Joe Redington Sr., helped establish the race.
Only the first 20 teams to reach Nome are tested there, leading to a feeling among mushers that any of them could be suspected because the musher whose dogs failed the test was not identified.
"I think that's most of the frustration," said Marrs, who finished in sixth place this year and signed the letter.
Officials have refused to identify the musher because they said it was unlikely they could prove the musher intentionally administered the drug and because a lawyer advised them not to make the name public.
The musher will be allowed to participate in next year's race and will not face any disciplinary action.
The Iditarod began testing sled dogs for prohibited substances in 1994. Dogs on all teams are subject to random testing between pre-race examinations and along the race trail. Testing in Nome for top finishing teams, however, is not random but expected.
Mushers fly their team's dog food to checkpoints along the trail up to two weeks in advance. It sits there until mushers arrive at the checkpoints.
As a result of the positive test findings, the race rule dealing with canine drug use was revised earlier this month to hold mushers liable for any positive tests in future races unless the mushers can prove the results happened because of something outside of their control.
Previously, the rule could be interpreted to require that race officials provide proof that a musher intended to administer the prohibited substance.
Follow Rachel D'Oro at https://twitter.com/rdoro