ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- One of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race's most popular mushers was handed a two-year suspension Friday and placed on three years' probation for abusing his dogs during this year's race.
Ramy Brooks can next request entry to the 1,100-mile race in 2010.
Brooks, twice an Iditarod runner-up, was disqualified from the race for striking his dogs with a quarter-inch-wide wooden trail marker when they stopped in Golovin, less than 100 miles from the finish in Nome.
The Iditarod Trail Committee conducted a more in-depth inquiry after getting eyewitness reports that what occurred in Golovin was far more serious, with several residents saying he had kicked, hit or struck his dogs with a ski pole.
The 38-year-old Brooks has adamantly denied the eyewitness accounts. He spoke to the board behind closed doors at a meeting Friday in Anchorage. He did not speak to the media.
The board voted unanimously for the two-year suspension.
Brooks' lawyer, Thomas Wang, issued a statement that said, "Ramy is understandably disappointed in the board's decision."
The Iditarod board was left with sorting out the different accounts of the incident to decide if more severe punishment was warranted. The board had an investigator from the Anchorage law firm Davis Wright Tremaine LLP that represents the race conduct the investigation.
Five witnesses -- three adults and two children -- told the investigator that Brooks kicked his dogs. The accounts differed on whether Brooks punched some of his dogs, hit them with a ski pole or struck them with a chain.
Stan Hooley, executive director of the Iditarod Trail Committee, said whether Brooks actually hit and kicked his dogs remains in dispute. He said the board did not base the two-year suspension on the Golovin accounts. Instead, the suspension was for the severity of what Brooks had already acknowledged -- hitting his dogs with the wooden trail marker.
"The board did not feel they could act on those allegations," Hooley said of the eyewitness accounts.
Hooley said Friday that Brooks' candor went a long way with the board.
"He adamantly denies using his fist and feet," he said.
Investigator Bob Stewart spent about six hours in Golovin on May 2 conducting interviews. He also talked with Brooks for about three hours.
Brooks said when his team refused to go on the ice in Golovin he went through the team three times, striking the dogs with the lathe. He also shook the dogs and lifted them by their harnesses. Some of the dogs cowered, others lost their footing. He also
admitted yelling at the dogs and using foul language.
"He states that he felt that he was in control throughout the entire situation," the report says. "Brooks states that he did not perceive at that point in time that anything that he did whether intentional or otherwise ended up hurting his dogs."
Witness Maude Paniptchuk told the investigator that Brooks was yelling obscenities, pulling on the dogs' harnesses, and eventually hit and kicked some and then hit some with a ski pole. She estimated this went on for 10 minutes before the team began moving again.
Witness Robert Moses, Sr., told the investigator that he was out gathering wood when he heard "dogs crying as if they were in pain." He reported that Brooks kicked his lead dogs three or four times. He did not see him hit the dogs with either a ski pole or the wooden lathe.
David Amuktoolik, Jr., said he was coming home from getting wood when he saw Brooks kicking his dogs and punching them with his fists. He said he saw Brooks three times kick and punch his dogs. He did not see Brooks hit the dogs with a ski pole. He told Paniptchuk he found a short chain where the musher had been.
Two children, an 8-year-old girl and a 9-year-old boy, also told the investigator that Brooks kicked some of his dogs. One of the children said Brooks hit the dogs with a chain.
The investigator said both Brooks' and the eyewitness accounts were credible.
One of Brooks' dogs died the day after the incident. A necropsy could not determine why the dog died, and race officials said there was no evidence that the Healy musher was to blame.
Brooks' wife, Cathy, described her husband as a "good man" who had been upfront with Iditarod officials from the start about what he did. She said she has never seen her husband abuse his dogs.
"He loves his dogs," she said.