When Siberian huskies were first brought into the UK in the 70s, part of the breed's appeal, over and above its striking looks and character, was its long history of racing.
Introduced from Siberia into Alaska in the midst of the Gold Rush in the early part of the 20th Century, these dogs, initially denigrated as "little Siberian rats", proved their value in the 408 mile All Alaska Sweepstakes. Siberian teams won this epic race for the first time in 1910 and Siberians held the course record at just over 74 hours and 14 minutes until 2010.
Further fame came the way of Leonhard Seppala and his Siberian dogs when he ran his team 261 miles carrying the vital serum that was to save the inhabitants of the city of Nome, Alaska from a diptheria epidemic in 1925.
With all of the resulting publicity that came the way of the dog drivers involved in the Serum Run, dogs like Togo and Balto became household names. Possibly the most famous musher of all time, certainly of that era, was Leonhard Seppala. He toured the lower 48 (mainland USA) with a group of around 40 dogs and raced extensively and successfully in the New England area.
Sled dog racing has always been open to all participants - it's infancy lay in the bars of gold rush towns where bored miners would bet on anything that moved. "My dogs are faster than yours" - is a cry that is still echoed around the world today.
Initially, race teams were made up using whatever dogs a driver had at his disposal. Most of the dogs had "day jobs" and were used as freighting animals and as such, size was regarded as a good thing. Power and strength were the important attributes. The appearance of the much smaller, lighter Siberian dogs caused a lot of hilarity until the teams were seen in action. People quickly came to the realisation that these smaller dogs were excellent. With American Kennel Club recognition in 1930, a breed standard was agreed and the Siberian Husky became a recognised breed. Prior to that date, racing drivers were free to breed for the particular charateristics that they preferred. Little regard was paid to the overall aesthetics of the dogs - the only question was " could it run?"
Many still continued with this approach - calling their dogs Alaskan huskies.
In the intervening years, the Alaskan husky became King of The Hill as a racing dog. Interest in KC recognised pure breeds, such as the Siberian Husky, the Samoyed and the Alaskan Malamute as pure racing animals was reduced. Nowadays, the Alaskan husky is in danger of losing its crown to the Scandinavian hound/pointer cross dogs. These dogs have started to dominate sprint racing and are increasingly being bred into Alaskan husky kennels.
The purebred dogs have and will continue to be raced and several notable kennels have achieved some measure of success, predominately in mid-distance racing.
Here in the UK, sprint racing has been the only game in town. In the early days of the breed here, distances offered were often around 10 to 13 miless. Slowly but surely, these distances have crept ever downward. A normal sprint race today will usually be around 3.5 to 5 miles for the 4 and 6 dog classes and approximately 2.5 to 3.5 miles for smaller classes.