ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) – Alaska’s famed Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race kicks off Saturday amid the most turbulent year ever for the annual long-distance contest.

Organizers of the 1,000-mile race have faced multiple problems, including a champion’s dog doping scandal, the loss of major sponsor Wells Fargo, discontent among mushers and escalating pressure from animal rights activists, who say the race is cruel to the dogs.

Iditarod CEO Stan Hooley acknowledges organizers have weathered a dark time but disagreed the race faces an uncertain future, but adds he sees it as a growing process.

As always, the race will begin with the customary ceremonial start in Anchorage, but the competitive portion beginning Sunday north of Anchorage will follow a southern route for the first time since 2013. Traditionally, southern and northern routes are alternated.

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