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Mushing for government money

The Yukon Quest just broke its leg. Now it’s on crutches, said musher Gerry Willomitzer.On Thursday, the territorial government…

The Yukon Quest just broke its leg.

 Now it’s on crutches, said musher Gerry Willomitzer.

On Thursday, the territorial government provided the Yukon Quest with US$50,000 per year, for the next two years.

The money boosts the Quest’s purse to US$200,000. However, the Quest board is still seeking US$25,000 in sponsorship to meet this target.

At first, the government’s contribution seems like a good thing.

But Willomitzer isn’t so sure.

“Now the Quest is under pressure to have a successful race, because it’s playing with public money,” he said.

“It’s like using only one leg and being on crutches.”

To get back on two legs, the Quest needs large corporate sponsors, said Willomitzer.

“Because without big sponsors, when the government changes or decides this is not the way it wants to spend public money, the Quest is going to go back to where it was before, or worse — it’ll be hanging between two crutches on no legs.”

And, when the Quest approaches local businesses for sponsorship this year, some might argue they’ve already given tax money to the Quest through this government sponsorship, said Willomitzer.

After the Quest’s $25,000 purse raise in late May — the first purse increase in 10 years — many local mushers were frustrated with the new prize money’s distribution.

“As a musher, I feel the purse distribution is way too top heavy,” said local musher Sebastian Schnuelle during the Quest’s annual general meeting.

“It’s been top heavy before, and now it is even top heavier.”

With 69 per cent of the past prize money servicing the top three positions, many mushers feel the Quest costs more than it is worth.

Every race has a break-even number for mushers, said Schnuelle.

And the bulk of the purse money should be placed in that range, so as many mushers as possible at least break even, rather than pumping more and more money into the front of the race, he said.

The Quest board listened and has allocated the majority of the government’s recent $50,000 donation to mushers finishing between fifth and 15th place.

“And anyone who finishes (in the top 30) will get $1,000,” Canadian Quest president Robin Round told a news conference Thursday.

But Willomitzer and Schnuelle aren’t satisfied.

“I can’t believe they put even more money in the top positions,” said Schnuelle.

“Raising the purse exponentially just doesn’t make sense — it’s still so top heavy,” added Willomitzer.

“It should have a more linear distribution, like the Iditarod, where there is only a $4,000 to $5,000 difference between positions.”

Next year’s Quest champ will take home $40,000, the runner up will take home $30,000 and the third-place finisher will pocket $22,000.

But sometimes the top three mushers finish minutes apart, said Willomitzer.

“And $10,000 is a big deal.

“Imagine what that would do to dog care — for $10,000 more, they’re going to step on it.”

The Quest board got all this input from mushers to put more money toward the back of the race, and it’s just not listening, he said.

If the top 10 mushers could recover all their costs, that would be nice, said Willomitzer.

“But as it stands, only the top five will break even.

“So, why would the other 20 mushers even participate?

“In the Iditarod, the top 23 finishers break even,” he added.

But financing is not the Quest’s only problem.

The race falls at a bad time, said Willomitzer.

It’s in the middle of the racing season, and there are only a couple of races mushers can run before it, he said.

“So, you miss out on all these major races.

“This is why the Quest needs a bigger purse, to make up for the shortfall of not being able to run these other races.”

With nearly 50 dogs, Willomitzer spends about $30,000 a year on his team.

“So, if I finished the Quest in fourth place, I would make back roughly half of my annual budget,” he said.

“I guess that’s OK.”

“We want to attract as many mushers as we can,” said Round.

“And we know from experience that we have to provide the resources to get them back — make it worth their while.”

But even with the additional prize money, Willomitzer is probably not going to race in this year’s Quest.

“I’ve committed myself to the Iditarod for the next couple of years,” he said.

And Schnuelle has made a similar commitment.

“I’ve signed up for the Iditarod and that is my top priority,” he said.

“But if I have enough dogs, I might try to do both.”