By Don Marotz
Annually, the third weekend in February, Ashton, Idaho hosts what is believed to be the oldest dog sled race in the lower 48 states. The Husky, the mascot at the local high school reflects the proud tradition that started in 1917 and continued until the early 1950's.
In the 50's the development and widespread use of snowmobiles signaled the end of dog sled popularity. Organizers attempted to hold the race in West Yellowstone, Montana, under the name of North American Dog Derby but it never caught on. The last race was held in 1961.
With renewed interest, the race was revived in 1993 by the Ambassador Cup Sports Foundation, a group consisting of a vast cross section of the community and dedicated to sponsoring various sporting activities which have included cross country ski races, mountain bike races and lately a marathon. The American Dog Derby is their biggest undertaking and is fast becoming the highlight event of the year in southeastern Idaho. For one weekend each year, dogs nearly out number people in this small town with as many as 50 teams competing. It should be noted that in dog sled racing women compete directly against men, and have won several times. "Mushers" from surrounding states as well as a few from Canada, Alaska, and Germany have participated. Huskies are by far the most common dog used now, but several teams have dogs with ancestry to the Targhee hound of the past.
The main event is divided into two classes depending on number of dogs in a team. The "10 Dog Class" races 100 miles, and the "6 Dog Class" covers 80 miles during the two-day race. In keeping with tradition, the races starts and ends down the center of Main Street in Ashton, which is closed to all but dog and pedestrian traffic. Several thousand spectators line the track. Adding to the excitement often there are several teams crossing the finish line at the same time.
Events that set this race apart from other races are that we include distance races for the kids and other beginners. these races assure that we will have participants for future races.
Other popular events during the second day of the races are short races for the spectator's dogs, known locally as the "MUTT RACES." Another event is the "WEIGHT PULL," where individual dogs are required to pull a loaded sled a short distance in a set time, (to see which how much each dog can pull).
Many interesting experiences and stories have developed since the race has been reinstated. in 1993, the course was from Ashton to Island Park and back the following day. One of the trail markers was moved by a snowmobiler and many of the leading teams made a detour of several miles before they were directed to turn around and had to backtrack to the trail. The last team made it to Island Park 2a.m. with the temperature at minus 20 degrees, only to have to leave on the return trip to Ashton at 6 a.m. that same mourning.
The next year the course was changed to running East of Ashton, into Targhee National Forest on the Ashton, Flagg Ranch Road. The racers complete a loop in the forest and return back into Ashton for the finish. This course has become very popular with Mushers and participants alike because of the scenic Grand Teton Range in the background.
Another year, one of the teams, sled, and driver ended up on the rear deck of a farmhouse because the farmer's dog decided to challenge a team. The dog soon found out that he had bitten off more than he could handle and retreated to what he thought was the safety of his home only to find out that the dog team had followed him.
The Dog Derby has become a family event for both participants and spectators alike. The race could not be held without the help and interest of many of the Ashton residents and we would like to thank them all. It has been said that this is the best free show in the country.