Musher Kristy Berington (bib No. 4) of Knik, Alaska, leaves the start line.
The world famous sled dog race has lost its support from sponsors as awareness of animal welfare increases among people.
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. 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 in an expensive sport.
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 are also adding a betting element for the first time this year, and plan to create some type of fantasy application for future races.
The Iditarod held its fan-friendly ceremonial start on 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 (80 kilometers) north of Anchorage.
Nearly 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) 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.
Five former champions are in the race, including four-time winners Martin Buser and Lance Mackey and three-time champion Mitch Seavey.
Pete Kaiser, who last year became the first Yupik contender to win the Iditarod, is back to defend his title.
Kaiser, 32, said a majority of the team that pulled him to victory will be back this year, including his lead dogs, Lucy and Morrow.
The 2018 winner and last year’s runner-up by only 12 minutes, Joar Leifseth Ulsom of Norway, is also in the field.
Last year's top two female finishers, Jessie Royer in third and Aliy Zirkle in fourth, are also competing.
Sponsorships are important not only to the mushers but to the Iditarod's overall financial health.
PETA calls the Iditarod cruel to the canine participants, and for years has pressed its main sponsors to bow out.
This week, the organization announced Alaska Airlines is dropping its sponsorship after this year’s race, following PETA protests outside its Seattle headquarters and meetings with PETA representatives.
PETA claims more than 150 dogs have died horrible deaths running the Iditarod since it began in 1973.
In the video, the cubs are seen moving so quickly that social media users have fallen in love with their heartwarming cuteness.
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