When 57 mushers line up Sunday for the official start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, it will be the second-smallest field in the past two decades, the AP reports. Only last year’s field of 52 was smaller. Interest in the world’s most famous sled dog race has waned in recent years, in part because of smaller cash prizes that make it difficult for mushers to compete. Animal rights activists also have stepped up pressure on sponsors to drop their support. Now, Iditarod officials are looking to breathe new life into the competition, joining a global sled-dog racing series that features TV coverage and a GPS tracking platform that they hope will appeal to fans. They're also adding a betting element for the first time this year, and plan to create some type of fantasy application for future races.
"Like many sports," Iditarod CEO Rob Urbach said, "we are in a race for relevance." The Iditarod held its fan-friendly ceremonial start Saturday in downtown Anchorage. Mushers took selfies with spectators, who also photographed and pet some of the more than 800 dogs in town for the event. The real race starts Sunday in Willow, about 50 miles north of Anchorage. Nearly 1,000 miles of unforgiving terrain, doused in deep snow this year, await them as they cross two mountain ranges, travel on the frozen Yukon River, and navigate the treacherous and wind-whipped Bering Sea coast to the old Gold Rush town of Nome. The winner is expected there about 10 or 11 days after the start. PETA calls the Iditarod cruel to the canine participants, and for years has pressed its main sponsors to bow out.
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