Norwegian musher leads the Iditarod at the halfway point

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) There is more pressure on the world's most famous sled dog race, and this time it's economic.

Iditarod Trail Sled Dog officials are blaming Alaska's recession, pressure from animal rights groups on sponsors and an attempt to ensure the race's future for a purse that is down about $250,000 from last year.

The $500,000 purse means there will be reduced payouts to the mushers who finish the race, and the pain starts at the top.

The winner is expected to receive about $50,000 for being the first musher to reach Nome. Last year, Mitch Seavey pocketed $71,250 for being the first into the old Gold Rush town on Alaska's western coast.

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Lower payouts will be staggered down the line, but the middling mushers will suffer the most.

Last year, Jason Mackey won just over $11,000 for placing 21st. This year, the musher in 21st place, and every musher after them, will only take home $1,049.

Last year, the nominal $1,049 payout to finishers didn't start until 31st place. Mushers must pay $4,000 just to enter the race.

Joar Ulsom of Norway led the field of 65 remaining mushers in the race Thursday, with the winner expected in Nome early next week.

The Iditarod recently lost a major corporate backer: Wells Fargo & Co. Race officials accused animal rights organizations of pressuring the bank and other sponsors with "manipulative information" about the treatment of the dogs.

Alaska's ailing economy tied heavily to the price of oil also doesn't help, spokesman Chas St. George said.

"The decision to reduce prize money, along with various other expenses was primarily made to ensure the sustainability of the organization," Stan Hooley, the race's chief executive officer, said in an email to The Associated Press.

He said the board for years committed to paying a purse before actually earning the revenue required to pay for it.

"This carries risk, particularly when there are no real cash reserves of significance to work with," he said.

He said sponsors will allow the race to exceed its budgeted goal by more than $120,000, and the addition of Alaska-based Northrim Bank to replace Wells Fargo was a big part of it. But he said the race is experiencing net revenue shortfalls in other areas, such as merchandising, raffles, advertising, auctions and its pay website.

St. George said the Iditarod remains the world's preeminent sled dog race, but it's just going through a tough year economically. He said they look forward to rebuilding the purse.

The race has had other blemishes this year, all related to a dog doping scandal. For the first time ever, a dog team tested positive for a banned substance.

Race officials said dogs on the team belonging to four-time champion Dallas Seavey last year tested positive for tramadol, an opioid pain killer. They said they couldn't prove Seavey administered the drug and didn't punish him. Seavey dropped out the race in protest and denies he gave his dogs the banned substance.

When the race started Sunday in Willow, musher Wade Marrs alleged the race's director of drug testing, Dr. Morrie Craig, threatened him. Marrs claims it was in retaliation because he criticized the board over how it handled the doping scandal and was intended to silence him before a mushers' meeting next week. Craig hasn't returned messages to the AP seeking comment.