Al Grillo/Associated Press

Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race musher Hugh Neff's lead dogs jump in their harness as they get ready for the ceremonial start of the race Saturday in Anchorage, Alaska.


The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race got off to its ceremonial start Saturday in Anchorage, Alaska, with mushers and their dogs going on short runs through the city.

The grueling 1,150-mile trek to Nome begins in earnest tomorrow with 67 mushers and more than 1,000 dogs competing, but intrigue and controversy are already mounting.

-- The recession has hit the famous race, with entrance fees rising as the purse declines to $610,000 from $935,000 last year. Fewer mushers are competing this year, with some saying the expense of training in tough economic times caused them to sit out.

-- Will two-time champion Lance Mackey win his third consecutive race? Only two others have achieved such a feat. A heavy favorite, Mackey has a compelling personal story having survived a battle with throat cancer. (A sidenote: He lives with "a dozen non-competing canines -- chihuahuas, Jack Russell terriers and pomeranians," according to an article in USA Today.)

-- Animal rights groups such as PETA have long protested the Iditarod, saying it's "marked by cruelty, injuries, and death." This year PETA is mounting a campaign to urge sponsors to withdraw support from the event. The Humane Society of the United States takes a different view. The group doesn't object to competitive mushing so long as the welfare of the dogs is not endangered but opposes the Iditarod in its current form. Three dogs died in the race last year.