A favourite to win the Iditarod sled dog race, a 1,600-kilometres arctic haul across Alaska from Nome to Anchorage, dropped out of the event Monday just 320 kilometres from the finish line because his dogs refused to continue.
Nicolas Petit of Girdwood, Alaska, and his 10 dogs were just off the Shaktoolik check point on a stretch of Bering Sea ice when a disagreement between two dogs, a veteran and a younger dog, caused the sled to pause, then completely halt, when Petit raised his voice to discipline the animals.
Last year, Petit held a lead of several hours when his bid for first place was scuttled while on the sea ice. Lost in a snowstorm, he navigated off course and lost precious time. He ultimately lost the race by 2 hours 15 minutes. Petit, a native of France, made his Iditarod debut in 2011 when he finished in 28th place and was named rookie of the year. His highest finish came last year when he placed second overall and he had been a top 10 finisher in four consecutive races before this year’s event.
The 38-year-old’s sled earlier in the day left Shaktoolik in the lead “like a rocket,” he told local television station KTUU. But then one of his dogs wanted to stop for a bathroom break and an older dog jumped on top of it in disagreement. Petit raised his voice and it spooked the rest of the team, which refused to mush.
“Everybody heard daddy yelling. Which doesn’t happen. And then they wouldn’t go anymore. Anywhere,” he said to KTUU.
Petit took his dogs back to a cabin at Shaktoolik to rest, but later decided to drop out of the race entirely for the good of his dogs.
“They’re all fine, they all ate good, no orthopedic issue. Just a head thing,” he said Monday.
Pete Kaiser won the Iditarod early Wednesday. The 31-year-old crossed the finish line in Nome after beating back a challenge from the defending champion, Norwegian musher Joar Ulsom.
Ulsom was about 40 minutes behind Kaiser and made up ground in the final 77 miles (124 kilometres) to Nome but couldn’t overtake him. Ulsom placed second, coming across the finish line before Kaiser could get his picture taken on the winner’s podium.
Kaiser’s winning time was 9 days, 12 hours, 39 minutes and six seconds. Ulsom finished the 1,000-mile (1,600 kilometre) race 12 minutes after Kaiser.
This year’s race came during a bruising two-year stretch for the Iditarod that included a dog doping scandal and the loss of national sponsors amid protests by animal rights activists.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is the biggest critic of the race.
“Hundreds of dogs (including six from Pete Kaiser’s team) were so sick, exhausted, or injured that they were pulled from the race, forcing the ones remaining to work even harder, struggling on in what is a grueling test — not of human endurance but of a dog’s ability to survive extreme cruelty,” PETA Executive Vice-President Tracy Reiman said in a statement issued immediately after Kaiser’s victory.
“As the Iditarod draws to a close, PETA makes the point that the mushers’ prize money comes at the expense of exhausted dogs’ broken bones, bruised paws, and bloody ulcers and says that the race must end,” Reiman said.
With files from the Associated Press