This story has been updated
FAIRBANKS – The Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race has sanctioned former champion Hugh Neff, a hard driver and veteran of both that race and the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Neff says he will appeal.
The sanction, which includes a ban from the 1,000-mile event in 2019 and 2020 , came Tuesday along with the release of a necropsy report on a sled dog that died in Neff’s team Feb. 9 at Clinton Creek along the trail from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada.
The news of the Tok musher’s suspension was a harsh blow for a sport that has been battling bad PR since it was revealed the team of four-time, Iditarod champ Dallas Seavey had been found doped in Nome at the end of that race in 2017.
The death of Neff’s Boppy was blamed on aspiration pneumonia caused by the 5-year-old dog inhaling its own vomit. But that wasn’t the only problem the necropsy found.
Head Veterinarian Nina Hansen said in the press release that “other findings include mild stomach ulcers, moderate intestinal inflammation, mild whipworm infestation, skeletal muscle necrosis, and severe weight loss and muscle wasting.
“Due to the organization’s commitment to sled dog care during the race, and based on the Code of the Trail and Yukon Quest rules 35, 43 and 44 pertaining to sled dog care, the decision has been made by Yukon Quest International to apply” a censure.
Rule 43 is the Quest’s anti-doping rule. The rules says “the musher must have their dog team free of all prohibited drugs and foreign substances from the time of the vet check until released by a race veterinarian or race official after the team has finished the race. Dogs that are continuing in the race shall not receive any of the following.”
Quest veterinarian Kathleen McGill said in a text message that Neff’s dog “did not have a positive drug test.” But she has yet to answer the question as to whether any drugs were found in the dog’s system. As was made clear after the Iditarod doping scandal erupted this year, there is a difference between drugs being found in a dog and a positive drug test being declared.
The 50-year-old Neff, a two-time Quest champion and four-time runner-up, ignored several requests for comment, but on Wednesday morning he posted this on his Facebook page:
“There is 2 sides to every story. We will be showing ours soon.”
Fans were rallying to Neff’s side.
“It’s been real hard to not jump down people’s throats online for their comments,” Justin Brand from Fairbanks posted on Neff’s Facebook page. “I know you’d never knowingly run a sick pup, and I really feel for ya. Stay strong, and don’t listen to cowards on keyboards. Your awesome and we all know it.”
Neff has in the past made promises to tell his side of the story only to leave the promises unfulfilled. After his team quit on the ice of Golovin Bay during the 2014 Iditarod and he had to be rescued, he messaged that “I’m racing this weekend, (but) everything will be explained soon enough.”
Neff, however, never explained why his team gave up, and why he couldn’t get them going again after a reasonable rest.
An explanation this time will be impossible to avoid if Neff follows through on his Facebook post announcing his planned Quest appeal.
The censure bans him from the race next year along with the 2019 Yukon Quest 300. If he wants to make a comeback, he will be required to run the YQ 300 mid-distance race before being allowed to enter the 1,000-mile race. That requirement will keep him out of the Quest proper until at least 2021.
“As per Rule #15, “the press release added, “Hugh Neff will have 30 days from the date of censure to request in writing an informal hearing with the Yukon Quest.”
It is unclear at this point how the Iditarod, the state’s most prestigious race might react to the Quest censure. That race has been embroiled in a doping controversy, and Iditarod racers in a meeting with a Board of Directors earlier this month demanded a crack down on drug use.
Many were also looking desperately for a positive light to shine on Alaska’s state sport. Most of the people who compete in the two races do so largely because they like living with big packs of dogs. For them, the Neff bust came as more bad news even if the personable fellow nicknamed “Huge Mess” has been seen by a some as a problem for years.
Neff was famous for being an Iditarod rabbit; he often was at the front of the race, but his best ever finish was fifth in 2011.
In 2014 – in an effort to net a third, top-10, Iditarod finish – he coaxed a fading team out of the village of Elim near the end of the Iditarod. That team subsequently quit on him, which led to his rescue.
He spent ten hours out on the ice in the wind and cold in an inadequate sleeping bag in a sled bag too small to provide shelter. He later said he could feel his body dying in the cold, and blamed Iditarod officials for not sending help sooner.
When Neff was hauled into White Mountain, the Iditarod’s penultimate checkpoint, he huddled by a heater in a tight ball and only slowly began to spread his arms and legs. Another musher watching Neff’s antics was reported to have described him as “blackfish.”
The blackfish – a small, ancient species that breathe both water and air – is a notorious Alaska survivor.
“More than one Alaska Native elder visiting the (Alaska Department of Fish and Game) information center has commented that if you thaw a blackfish after it has been frozen it will ‘come back to life,’ the agency’s Nancy Sisinyak. “(But) debate continues as to whether the Alaska blackfish can survive total freezing or partial freezing, for how long and at what temperatures. Surprisingly, there are very few studies in scientific journals that focus on the blackfish. Little is known about their life history and physiology.”
Chicago born Neff has always seen himself as something of a blackfish – a survivor. He embraced an image as an Alaska hardman.
In 2013 in a blog post titled “champs or chumps,” he suggested Iditarod racers weren’t tough enough for the Quest.
“Is it the cold Alaskan interior weather?,” he asked. “Temps have hovered way above zero over the last few years– warmer on average than the Last Great Race’s have been. Whatever their excuses it really is pathetic. Alaskans lead by example, unfortunately these prominent mushers glued to earning incomes off of Mr. Redington’s dream (race) are the worst role models the Greatland has.”
In 2011, Neff led the Quest into a storm on notorious Eagle Summit north of Fairbanks only to be forced to turn back. A dog died during the journey. In 2001, Quest veterinarians disqualified Neff, an unusually harsh move, after deciding his team was unfit to continue.
The last time an Alaska long-distance sled dog race suspended a musher for a dog care issue was in 2007. Ramy Brooks from Nenana was banned from the Iditarod for two years after villagers in Golovin reported to race officials that his dogs stopped there, and when Brooks couldn’t get them going again, he beat and kicked them.
Brooks admitted to “spanking” the dog with a piece of lath used to mark the trail. After the ban, he never returned to Iditarod.
In 2017, the Iditarod suspended Travis Beals from Willow for beating his girlfriend. Beals subsequently completed a state treatment program for abusers and returned to the race this year to finish in ninth place.