By Genesee Keevil
To bolster the cash-strapped Yukon Quest’s coffers, Danny Melville gave the organization an all-expenses-paid trip to Jamaica.
The two-person holiday should have been the grand prize in the Quest’s annual raffle.
But the raffle, which has been a hallmark of the race’s fundraising efforts for years, didn’t come together.
The five-page application was too onerous.
“The whole raffle didn’t work out,” said Quest manager Wendy Morrison on Tuesday. “It’s a pretty complex application package and there’s a lot of paperwork required.”
Alongside the trip, the Quest was working on other prize packages, added Morrison.
“And we just couldn’t get the paperwork we needed for some of those.”
But the Jamaican holiday wasn’t tangled in red tape.
“The trip was ready to go,” she said.
A tourism operator and owner of the Jamaica Dog Sled Team, Melville has an employee entered in this year’s Quest and wanted to assist the struggling organization.
Now, it’s not clear what will happen to the free trip.
“We’re still in contact with Danny about that,” said Morrison.
Earlier this month, the Quest admitted it could only guarantee $125,000 of its $200,000 purse.
Four-time champ Lance Mackey, and last year’s runner-up Ken Anderson are probably dropping out.
It’s not about the purse, said Mackey, who is short dogs this year after leasing a passel of his kennel to another Iditarod competitor for $50,000.
But, if you’re a competitive musher waffling about the race and then the purse shrinks….
“The sport’s expensive and difficult enough, we don’t need to be running for welfare cheques,” said Mackey on Tuesday.
Last year, Mackey took home $35,000 for winning the 1,609-kilometre race. Anderson pocketed $25,000.
“I was counting on that level of paycheque,” said Mackey.
“Even if I was running, to know I was going to spend $15,000 to make $20,000—to make only $5,000 to be out there for that long, in those kind of conditions, jeopardizing my chance to ultimately win another Iditarod—it’s not worth it to me.”
“I don’t want to seem like the bad guy who’s fixated on money,” said Anderson.
“If all we cared about was money then we wouldn’t be doing this. But we have to pay the bills somehow and I have to do what’s best for the solvency of my kennel.”
Anderson will make more money at two smaller races in Alaska than he expects he could on the Quest this year.
“Say I did really good and placed fifth (in the Quest), I might make $10,000,” he said. “But it costs $7,000 to race it—it’s not worth it to run my team through the Quest wringer for $3,000.
“I cleared as much running these other two (mid-distance) races as I would have running the Quest. Plus, it’s easier on me and the dogs, and there’s more rest time before the Iditarod.”
Every person who signs up has spent tons of money and time getting ready for the Quest, said former Quest race marshal Mike McCowan, from Alaska.
“They have so many things on their mind, just getting ready personally for this race,” he said.
“And then to be looking at the organization that’s putting this race on, and seeing it’s unstructured and doesn’t really have it all together, I would think, ‘What am I getting myself into here?’
“It gives a person a very uneasy feeling and a great lack of confidence.”
The Iditarod also had problems assembling its purse this year, said McCowan.
“But it seemed to be able to hold it together a whole lot better,” he said.
“At the end of June, we came out with a baseline purse award for 2009,” said Iditarod director of public relations Chas St. George.
“It’s a baseline because it would be a minimum purse—not the purse. We have a commitment to every competitor in this field to work toward the highest purse payout we can.”
The Iditarod announced its minimum $662,000 purse at the same time as its race sign-up.
“We did it simultaneously,” said St. George.
The Iditarod didn’t want mushers signing up expecting one purse and then getting another.
“We’re committed to not going back,” he said.
It’s a different story with the Quest.
Six months after sign-up started, the Quest admitted it only had 62 per cent of its purse.
It unilaterally changed the rules, said McCowan.
That could cause the organization legal problems.
If people already signed up to enter the race, then there is some sort of contract, said UBC law professor Joost Blom.
“The question is, ‘What are the terms of the contract and do they guarantee a particular purse?’”
The 2009 Quest rules state the purse breakdown—the same as 2008. It totals $185,000 up to 15th place. Every additional finisher will get $1,000, according to the rules.
There are currently 35 mushers signed up. If they all finish, that’s a $205,000 purse payout.
“Generally speaking, if you signed up for something, and it says, ‘This is going to happen,’ and they change the thing on you, it’s a breach of contract,” said Blom.
“That is, unless they’ve taken the precaution of saying, ‘By the way, we might change this.’”
“If a musher potentially decides they’d like to take the Yukon Quest to court, that would be entirely in their realm,” said Quest executive director Stephen Reynolds.
The Quest didn’t look into the legal ramifications of changing its contract with the mushers, he added.
“We don’t have enough money to have a lawyer to go to on an ongoing basis,” said Reynolds. “And I don’t think the mushers would be too happy if we spent $5,000 on a legal opinion right now.”
I think it’s been a very frustrating season for a lot of people, added Reynolds. “And we certainly faced new challenges this year that we haven’t seen before.”
The Quest lost Sorel, one of its major sponsors.
“Sorel’s choice demographic shifted to a 25- to 30-year-old female urban client, and that’s just not somebody who shows up around the race,” he said.
A two-year agreement with the Yukon government, which gave the race $50,000 for it’s purse in 2007 and 2008, also ended.
However, the territory still gave the Quest $179,180 this year toward marketing and administrative costs.
But that money can’t be used for the purse, said Reynolds. “It’s allocated funding, designated to specific expenditures.”
Missing the raffle didn’t affect the purse either, he added.
“You can’t use raffle proceeds to pay prize money; it’s a law in the Yukon.”
Although the race is less than a month away, Reynolds is hopeful the purse will meet its $200,000 mark.
“It depends on the available generosity of the business community in Alaska and the Yukon,” he said.
The Quest has been trying not to lean as heavily on its $500 to $1,000 sponsors, said Reynolds. “We were trying to get more of the $5,000, $10,000 and $25,000 sponsors to lighten the load.
“But they’re very difficult to find this year, so we’re redoubling our efforts locally and in Alaska.”
The race has always been fundraising right up to its start in February, added Reynolds.
“But usually, by some time in January, the discrepancy is $20,000 or $25,000 from final goal. And we were very confident over the last few years our traditional sponsors would come on board.
“This year, with the economic situation the way it is, we were seeing a larger number of corporations withdraw sponsorship, or come back with a decrease, and we thought it only fair to let the mushers know where we stood.”
The Quest extended its early dropout deadline from January 9 to the 23. Mushers dropping out in this period will receive all but $150 of their $1,500 entry fee back.
“Why extend the dropout period?” said McCowan.
“One of the only reasons is, if you have a large number of competitors signed up, and it’s been heard through the grapevine they’re strongly considering dropping out, this allows the organization more time to attempt to go out and possibly get the money situation squared away without getting a black eye.
“Because if you have six substantial competitors drop out, and it’s also known the purse is 55 per cent of what was promised, that could definitely give the organization a huge black eye and make it extremely difficult for the organization to go forward and raise more purse money.”
Filling the purse has always been a problem.
“In the 1980s the board took out personal loans to make the purse,” he said.
The Quest’s a wonderful race, but organization isn’t focused, said McCowan, mentioning a $20,000 grant from the city of Fairbanks the Quest “forgot” to apply for.
“It was an automatic spaceout,” he said. “If you’re looking at getting $200,000 from an entity, I would damn well know when the application date was.
“That’s one tenth of the potential purse—one would think that would be a priority.”
The Quest board has no checks and balances, added McCowan.
“It’s a case of cronyism.
“And there’s always been a feeling that the Yukon board was almost like the twice-removed second step-child.”
With more than 35 mushers signed up, the organization finally had a chance to make something of the Quest this year, said three-time champ Hans Gatt.
“They had a big field, partly because they had a decent purse, and there was effort made to fix the trail up—everything was pointing in the right direction,” he said.
“And now it’s just the same old story again.
“Whoever’s responsible for raising money for the Quest is not doing his job.
“It’s really disappointing.”
Contact Genesee Keevil at