ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The world's most famous sled dog race is putting more cold cash into the hands of its top mushers.
The winner of next year's Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race will pocket $70,000, which is $19,600 more than what the top musher received this year, Stan Hooley, the race's chief executive officer, said Tuesday.
The overall purse is increasing by $50,000, and that additional prize money will be distributed to the top five finishers. He expects this development to increase the intensity of competition among race leaders.
"Our goal is to continue to grow prize money each year and every year," Hooley said. "This just fits a pattern of that growth that we've set a goal to accomplish."
The winner of the nearly 1,000-mile race from Anchorage to Nome used to pocket $69,000 for first place — until the downturn in the economy five years ago, when the Iditarod lost nearly $1 million in sponsorships and scaled back the purse.
The winner for the past five years has taken home about $50,000, which some mushers say doesn't even cover their dog-food bill for a year.
Four-time winner Jeff King donated $50,000 to the race, but times have improved in the two years since he made that gift.
"It has been a gradual growth process," Hooley said.
The race recently renewed a deal with the Sportsman Channel to be the Iditarod's official television network.
Though financial details haven't been disclosed, Hooley said: "The cash involved in that deal is certainly a part of the ability to grow the purse again this year."
The only difference in this year's increased purse is how it will be doled out, among the top five mushers instead of evenly distributed among the top 30, he said.
Besides the $70,000 check, the winner will receive a new Dodge pickup, making the total prize package for the first musher to cross the finish line in excess of $110,000.
The second-place musher will pocket $58,600, up $11,000 from this year. The third-place finisher gets $53,900, an increase of $9,000; the musher coming in fourth takes home $48,400, up $6,000; and the fifth-place musher will receive $44,300, or $4,400 more than this year.
Overall, mushers finishing in the top 30 earn prize money on a sliding scale, down to $1,900 for 30th place. Every other musher who finishes will get $1,049 in prize money.
Race officials on Tuesday also announced a 20-mile stretch of the trail, between Rohn and Farewell, has been improved. The area was the site of many accidents this year during a low-snow season.
"Many mushers felt that it was impossible for us to go that route if we had very low snow conditions. Obviously, we don't want to move this race if we don't have to," he said.
Heavy equipment was flown to Farewell, about 150 miles northwest of Anchorage, in early October to clear and mulch the trail, which was left heavily damaged by a wildfire in 2010.
The project was completed over 17 days. The estimated cost was $260,000, and included help from the state, the Iditarod Historic Trail Alliance and in-kind donations from Cruz Construction Alaska and Donlin Gold, a race sponsor.
Race director Mark Nordman said it was likely the most significant work done to this section of trail about in 30 years. "We won't be doing this project again while I'm alive," he said at a news conference.
So far, 79 mushers so far are signed up for the 2015 race, including defending champion Dallas Seavey. The race starts March 7 in Anchorage and ends about nine days later on Front Street in Nome, a block off the frozen Bering Sea.